Volcanoes blast; glaciers melt; economies implode; currencies nose dive and voters revolt. It is the worst of worlds for the climate change movement, and the outlook continues to darken.
None of this dimmed the glory of the majestic moment in Amsterdam yesterday as the part-time IPCC chair and part-time sleazy book author Rajendra Pachauri emerged from the seclusion in which he has unwillingly been lurking since international outrage over some high profile and amateurish errors at the IPCC and his vituperative and vindictive attacks on quite justified critics made him an international laughingstock at the beginning of the year.
The occasion for the prominent Indian novelist’s return to the limelight was the first open session of a review commission convened by the United Nations to examine the work of the IPCC and, hopefully, to make recommendations that will insure that the IPCC’s next report on climate change will be less vulnerable to critics than the document produced under Dr. Pachauri’s lackadaisical supervision last time.
Politically, the commission will fail. That is, the panel will not satisfy the hundreds of engaged and vocal critics pushing back against the ‘consensus’ on climate change — and will do even less to convince an increasingly skeptical public opinion that a strict global treaty on climate change is humanity’s only hope of escaping devastating consequences in the near future.
No matter what the commission does, the world will continue to walk away from the corpse of the global climate change movement of the past decade. The structure of the international system, the different agendas and timetables of the different countries involved in negotiations, and the clumsy architecture of the UN’s cumbersome treaty-making procedures ensure that any global treaty will be an anti-climax: too weak to work, too poorly designed to be cheap or efficient, too vague to be effectively enforced, too inflexible and too clumsy to serve as a policy guide as knowledge and circumstances change, and, it it achieves anything substantive at all, it will be too unpalatable to win the two thirds majority needed for ratification in the United States Senate.
Movement toward conservation, renewable and alternative fuels, and a decreasing reliance on hydrocarbon fuels per unit of GDP will continue and, I think, accelerate in most of the world’s most important advanced and developing economies. This will happen whether or not the IPCC issues another report, because it is in the interests of the major economies to cut fuel use to be economically competitive and to increase their national security. Efforts to establish comprehensive monitoring of CO2 emissions around the world will also continue — if for no other reason than that agencies like the CIA, organizations like the IMF and corporations like hedge funds and investment banks would like to have faster access to reliable data on shifts in global economic activity. The sheer blind bureaucratic lust for power that drives the culture of the United Nations and the world’s governments will also ensure continuing efforts to give politicians and their appointees the last word on regulating as much economic activity as possible.
In other words, the review panel in Amsterdam, like the IPCC itself, is something of a sideshow. To use the kind of simile that might appeal to an author of Dr. Pachauri’s ambitions, the IPCC and the review panel are like the piano in a house of ill repute: useful for establishing atmosphere, but playing no substantive role in the core operations of the firm.
This is partly because the goal that the climate change movement so unwisely set out (Al Gore, what were you thinking?) is so unrealistic that almost nothing could make it work. A universal treaty that effectively regulates global economic activity would be a revolution in the international system significantly greater than the establishment of the United Nations and the world is very far from ready for that kind of change. But the climate change movement is also in trouble because it relies on a social vision that never worked well and is now melting faster than a Himalayan glacier. That model is gnostocracy: the rule of experts. (The initial ‘g’ is silent in English.)
The word blends two Greek words: Γνωσις (pronounced GNOsis with the ‘o’ long and the ‘g’ audible) meaning ‘knowledge’ and the word meaning ‘to rule’. In a perfect gnostocracy, the smartest, best educated people make all the decisions for the rest of us. This system of government by experts and peer-reviewed literature is what William F. Buckley denounced when he famously said that he’d rather be ruled by the first three hundred names in the Cambridge phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.
(Note to younger readers: back in the old days the telephone company would publish an alphabetically arranged listing of everyone who had what we now call a land line. In those days nobody had cell phones but almost everyone had a land line. The ‘telephone book’ contained almost every name in town.)
Gnostocracy, like all systems of government, works much better in theory than in practice. In theory, having the smartest, wisest and most qualified experts make all the decisions means that most of the decisions will be the best that can be made. In some ways gnostocracy comes closest to the proposals Plato made in his famous Republic, when he calls for the rule of ‘philosopher kings’. Let the best and the brightest among us rule: the Harvard and Yale kids with the best law school grades should be on the Supreme Court. Congress and the President should hand over authority to unelected boards of experts who can decide political questions on the basis of actual knowledge rather than letting the dirty scramble of lobbies and interest groups (to say nothing of the foolish preferences of the ignorant rabble) decide important matters.
In practice it has only five little flaws. Gnostocrats even at their best are prone to mistakes because scientific knowledge is by its nature evolving; the social sciences and the science of extremely complicated systems (think economics) most vital to politics like economics are the most error prone and the least capable of achieving accurate knowledge; political choices involve matters of morals and personal preference which cannot be decided by scientific procedures; no process of selection can be designed which promotes only ‘good’ and ‘honest’ gnostocrats to power and keeps out the charlatans, and the frauds; and finally as a group scientists have interests other than pure science and knowledge (such as promoting gnostocracy thereby gaining power and wealth for themselves).
The closest fictional representation of a perfect gnostocracy appears in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the floating island of Laputa governed by absent minded professors. It is far and away the least happy and the most ludicrous of the imaginary places Gulliver visits. It’s intrinsic to the Blue social model I’ve written about earlier on this blog, and the climate change movement wants to enshrine something very like it at the heart of global economic and development policy through the complex ramifications of the global climate control mechanisms they hope to introduce through treaty and legislation.
The trouble for the climate change movement is that this, the most ambitious and grandiose gnostocratic initiative ever proposed, comes just as faith in the experts is receding worldwide. Faith in experts is often a product of early economic development: the scientists have so many new ideas, and new technologies have such prestige that many people in society begin to think that the guys in the white coats have all the answers. Sit down, hicks, backwoods boys and rednecks. Shut up, Bubba, and let the smart guys get on with business. Let the scientists and the planners design your cities and your educational system.
In rapidly developing countries like the US in the 1920s (and China today), the experts and technocrats have enormous prestige. Emptying whole districts of the countryside to make lakes, uprooting neighborhoods to build highways, re-engineering whole ecosystems to improve productivity; challenging ancient and traditional religious and cultural values in the name of modernity: the scientists and technicians are like wizards, waving their wands and producing unimaginable changes.
In Europe, the dispassionate scientists and civil servants gained enormous moral and political authority after the horrors and disasters of the first half of the twentieth century. Populism brought communism, fascism and war. Dispassionate experts and civil servants like Jean Monnet (founder of the European Union) ended conflicts and engineered prosperity and peace. It was better to ignore the siren songs of left and right populism and turn instead to the technocratic politics of Brussels. Government by qualified civil servants guided by the best available technical knowledge made sense — certainly better sense than entrusting your affairs to a charismatic failed Austrian art student.
But faith in gnostocracy is taking a beating these days. After all, it was experts armed with extremely complex computer models who devised the financial system now falling down around our ears. Experts and economists told the Europeans that their new ‘euro’ currency was ready for prime time. Experts and computer models produced the massive and apparently unnecessary shut down of air travel in Europe following the Icelandic eruption. Experts and computer models were telling us that the hazards of undersea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico were well understood.
In some ways it’s a healthy trend, in other ways it’s quite dangerous, but the Atlantic world today is in the grip of populist revolt. On the left (as in Greece) and on the right (just ask your local Tea Party chapter) people feel lied to and betrayed. The emperors have no clothes; the experts busy certifying one another and vouching for each others procedures and computer models seem less and less relevant to real life.
Meanwhile, life is becoming more expensive. The Europeans now have their own trillion dollar bailout to boast of, and more may still be to come. All of the advanced industrial economies are looking at years if not decades of financial austerity as rising taxes and falling budgets cramp incomes and cut services.
We trust the experts less and less, but they keep coming to us for money.
In this atmosphere, the fight for a massive global treaty to fight climate change that involves annual payments of $100 billion and more to (mostly) corrupt and incompetent governments in developing countries that make Greece look as tidy as Sweden has no chance. Taxpayers will want to keep their money closer to home and they will be worried about disasters like the euro blowing up next week rather than the sea level rising twenty years down the road.
Experts armed with computer models are just guessing: that is the corrosive message coming out of the economic and political turmoil that has engulfed the world economy in the last three years. Look for the populist backlash to grow, and look for the global climate treaty to be one of its victims.