A proposal to solve a very urgent problem – part 1 of 2

Global action on the global problem of human-induced climate change is stalled. In most countries action has become a victim to internal politics and also to the absence of any international authority capable of organising a concerted response. Everybody waits for others to do something.

The politics involved in the workings of the UN prevent it from providing a solution to the absence of an international authority, and attempts to get one set up by treaty seem hopeless.

In this situation even the scientific authority of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has come into question. It is alleged to be biased and complicit in the attempts of certain vested interests to exploit fear of catastrophe. Also it is not effectively answerable to anybody. There is obviously not just some plausibility but some substance in these accusations.

There is no doubt that everybody who works for the IPCC is already convinced that climate change is dangerous and that it is at least exacerbated by our use of fossil fuels. They want to find more evidence for their view. They may be nominally responsible to the UN, but in practice that is illusory.

In this situation it is easy for those who oppose the IPCC to make accusations that sound very plausible to those who are unable to evaluate the accusations for themselves. What is clearly needed is an impartial body that can encourage specific, well-argued accusations against the IPCC and evaluate them in a publicly accessible way.

The fact that members of the IPCC are biased does not imply that they will only attend to data that suit their views or draw unwarranted conclusions. In fact, if they are confident in their conclusions they will normally be motivated to make sure that they do not leave themselves open to such accusations.

Nevertheless, such accusations need to be examined publicly, competently, impartially, authoritatively and in detail. How is it possible to constitute the appropriate body?

Let a consortium of major foundations agree to finance it for a specific period and set up a steering committee to secure the cooperation of the IPCC and of major universities throughout the world. The steering committee will call on those universities to nominate one or two people who are not involved professionally or publicly with questions of climate, but possess the sort of abilities necessary to understand the scientific issues involved. That will produce a panel of perhaps two hundred. The actual jury will consist of ten or a dozen members chosen by lot from the panel, subject to appropriate constraints, such as that no jury contain more than one citizen of any one country.

The jury will be appointed to examine a particular case which has been deemed by the panel as meriting investigation. It will not aim at a simple “guilty/ not guilty” verdict or at unanimity. Rather each juror will be asked, in relation to each specific aspect of the evidence produced, to assess any probability that the evidence might warrant the accusation of scientific malpractice, say on a scale of 0-10, and to comment on their reasons for that assessment. The jury might proceed to produce an agreed assessment by a process like that used in scoring performances in sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating. Scores that deviate so far from the median as to be idiosyncratic are dropped and an average is taken of the rest. In many cases that might come out as zero, but in such complex and disputable material, it would not be damning to be given a score of one or two. People have genuine differences about the weight to be given to a piece of evidence. In any case the point of the exercise would not be in the verdict so much as in what emerged in the process of arriving at it.

It might well be that small groups of dissident scientists who think they have a serious case against the consensus will feel that the whole arrangement is just a move to discredit them unheard. They lack the resources to mount the sort of case that demands to be taken seriously and risk being attacked for their failure to do so. It might be necessary to assure them that if they can convince the panel that they have a case that should be heard, they will receive adequate financial support to mount it before the tribunal. It is likely that the major vested interests that want to discredit the IPCC will decide that their best tactic is to ignore the panel or prevent it from getting any sort of recognition. So they will not fund any challenge.

Granted that such accountability might produce a well-grounded consensus about the need for action, it would be necessary to establish an authority to assign responsibilities to particular agents, especially states in a way that is accepted by most of them and puts those who resist under pressure to conform.

Such a body would involve quite different expertise and a very different modus operandi, not judicial but political. I think that it would still need to be based on selecting by lot from a relatively large group of nominees the membership of the decision-making body. I leave it to the reader to speculate about these matters. The decision-making body would probably need to be accompanied by an appeals tribunal to hear cases against specific decisions.

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9 Responses

  1. Sounds like an excellent opportunity to put demarchy into practice. The basic proposal sounds feasible, though I suspect there would be considerable opposition from existing governments regarding the last two paragraphs. Might be better to start off with something that is politically feasible and then hope that the resulting verdict will lead to strong calls for action that would be hard for politicians to resist.

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  2. Hi John,

    I don’t think this is a productive approach. It suffers from multiple drawbacks. A fundamental problem is that it is elite dominated – organized by elites, staffed by elites, financed by elites, managed by elites, etc. The public is expected to sit back and accept the result on faith.

    Practically, the process will meet the same obstacles the IPCC process does. Since it is ad hoc, it will be susceptible to the same kind of attacks by interested parties. Those parties will use their considerable resources to affect the findings of the panel and of the public’s perception of the process and of the findings. It is hard to be optimistic regarding the prospects of useful outcomes.

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  3. There are several issues involved:

    First, unless global warming triggers a methane release that causes a runaway greenhouse effect that would be an extinction event for most multi-cellular lifeforms, it is not an extinction event, and people can adjust, although it would be highly disruptive of people living below the higher sea levels. There are worse threats, including the threat of global economic collapse from the bursting of the debt bubble.

    If such a runaway occurs, it is likely it would endure for only a couple of decades before the methane degraded, and it is possible for a few humans to survive it in self-sufficient underground biosphere bunkers. If they also preserve samples of other lifeforms, they could replenish the planet.

    However, at this point not even a world dictatorship could enforce effective measures to prevent the effects feared. It’s not going to get done with a few regulations, and most countries have no capacity to effectively enforce any rules on their peoples if those peoples don’t voluntarily buy in to the severe sacrifices they would have to make.

    Consider the example of Haiti. Most of the people there are fully aware they are depleting the resources on which their lives depend, but to ask them to refrain is to ask them to not have anything to eat the next day. In the absence of predators to hold down their numbers, they will deplete all resources to the point of extinction.

    The only solution is new, cheaper technologies that enable each of billions of people to meet their daily needs in a way that does not threaten the entire world. Unless or until such technologies are developed and made available to everyone, the death spiral will continue, and there is nothing anyone or any government can do about it.

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  4. JR:> The only solution is new, cheaper technologies that enable each of billions of people to meet their daily needs in a way that does not threaten the entire world.

    What’s to say that the sort of demarchic oversight committee John suggests wouldn’t come up with this sort of suggestion? Note that the selection criteria specifically excludes>/em> climate scientists, in favour of “people who are not involved professionally or publicly with questions of climate, but possess the sort of abilities necessary to understand the scientific issues involved.”

    YG:> A fundamental problem is that it is elite dominated.

    In demarchy, sortition is not utilised as a representative mechanism, but as a blind break to ensure the impartiality of the selection process. The reason that the sample base needs to be an elite is because these are the people who “possess the sort of abilities necessary to understand the scientific issues involved”. Why is that problematic if descriptive representation is not the motivating principle? I’m uneasy about universities nominating two candidates for the selection pool, it might be better to have an additional national sortition for anyone with a PhD in one of the relevant disciplines. This would provide a knowledge elite as opposed to favouring cronies of the vice chancellor.

    >The public is expected to sit back and accept the result on faith.

    When it comes to scientific and technical matters the public are more likely to accept the counsel of people who know what they are talking about. But there is a good case for an additional descriptively-representative jury to listen to the arguments of the panel of scientists and decide if their recommendations are politically acceptable. At this second stage, the scientists would assume an advocacy, rather than a judgment role. I don’t imagine John will approve of this second, populist, jury, but democrats would argue that it is a necessary additional step. It would also be a demonstration of the need for both approaches to sortition (the impartial Blind Break and the descriptively-representative Invisible Hand).

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  5. A demarchic body may indeed do a better job of adopting solutions, but its members need to have at least enough education to recognize who the experts are, and to balance their input.

    So we would not want the panel or the experts they consult to be too heavily weighted toward climatologists, first because that profession has developed a kind of ideology on the subject, and also because their expertise does not extend to remedies.

    We would want substantial participation by leading-edge technologists from a wide variety of fields who have a good sense of what is technologically attainable in time to be useful at a cost we can afford.

    We would also want a balance of participation from law, government, management, public policy, history, and cultural anthropology to assess what measures could actually be enforced, including measures to develop new technologies.

    In contemplating reforms that would have to have the full cooperation of peoples all over the world, not just in the few enlightened countries where the law is actually respected, and from which most reformers seen to come, one needs to examine how well any proposal could be made to work in the worst case countries.

    In my own thinking about such matters I like to consider doing things in Mexico. Now I love the Mexican people, I have spent much time there, and have many friends there. But probably not more than one out of a thousand Mexican nationals will obey a law out of respect for the law. If they need to violate a law for personal gain, they will, and if a law enforcement official shows up, they know they can just pay him to look the other way. The only laws they can be expected to follow are the laws of economics and the market, and perhaps not even those.

    I have visited a lot of countries that are even worse. A common experience is to be asked to take over financial management of some enterprise because they feel only an American can be trusted with money. When the people of a country can’t trust their countrymen, there is a problem that only a dramatic cultural revolution can solve.

    So a demarchic panel should also contain many who have had experience trying to do business in a variety of less-developed countries.

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  6. I won’t attempt to comment in detail on your comments. Some of the issues raised are addressed briefly in Part 2 of my piece which will be posted soon.
    There are many chicken and egg problems in matters of political culture. If people hold the law in contempt that is often because in their experience it functions mainly as a weapon used by powerful factions in their own interests, rather than as the framework of a just society. Changing the culture involves changing the practice. And vice versa.
    We all tend to be influenced by very general ideas and apply them to particular cases without sufficient regard to the specific character of the problems involved.
    Many people, impressed by the importance of competition, are very reluctant to countenance any constraint on competition. That lead one very serious Harvard philosopher to proclaim that people do not have a right to life, only a right to compete for it. As if every human being were equally able to compete! He was not hard hearted. He thought we have duties to the weak in charity, but not in justice, but he admitted that getting adequate help to the worst off from charity was “utopian”.
    However, even from the point of view of maximising competition, a championship contest, without any attempt at handicapping is often counterproductive. If the best at the game are always going to get all the rewards, there is little incentive for most others to compete. In fact the pressure on the best to give of their best is greatly reduced if they can cruise home with little effort. All the games we play have their specific rules, which need to be directed to ensuring the type of competition most appropriate to the activity in question.
    Which brings me to the question of elitism. We live in a productive social system that depends on very intensive specialisation. Our physical bodies consist mainly of an enormous number of cells, each of which contains in its DNA the same basic information and potential, but all of which develop in very different ways so as to constitute organs with very limited but important functions. It is vital to the health of the whole that each of those functions be performed as well as possible. So it is most important is that the particular pathological hazards to which each function is vulnerable be addressed effectively.
    There are some general factors that are important to all of them and each is connected with many of the others in particular syndromes.
    All of us have the same basic capacities, needs and potential, based on the same DNA. Although our relations to each other are more like the interrelations of elements of an ecosystem than a single unitary organism, the point is the same. An ecosystem depends crucially on each element in it filling some specific function in the system.
    Our cultures are, in their specific practices, highly artificial but also highly contingent constructions that are changing continually as a result of particular people changing in their attempt to make the most of their situation. That has effects that are often difficult to understand in their specific character, even when we are well aware of some aspects of their effects. But if we attempt simply to suppress those effects, as it were by taking pain-killers, we may do more harm than good. Sloganised ideological prescriptions are fatal. One of the problems with democracy as we have it is that it encourages the politicians to concentrate on selling us pain-killers and slogans.
    So the role of experts who attempt to understand what is really going on is vital. But the experts need to be accountable ultimately to a much wider constituency. They are often too myopic, self-obsessed and over-confident in their conclusions. The trouble is that most of us, however brilliant, lack some of the expertise necessary to evaluate those conclusions. We need to entrust that evaluation in each instance to people or processes in which we can have confidence. Various sorts of sortitional procedures have a vital part to play in institutionalising appropriate forms of scrutiny in different areas and levels of policy.

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  7. A parting shot at people who think they understand the specific properties of a whole, simply because they understand the properties of its components
    Lookout on the Titanic: Iceberg dead ahead.
    Captain: Not to worry. It’s only water.

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  8. JR:> We would also want a balance of participation from law, government, management, public policy, history, and cultural anthropology to assess what measures could actually be enforced, including measures to develop new technologies.

    I believe this is what JB has in mind (the only exclusion being climatologists). One might want to add classicists and archaeologists as they were key to breaking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park. That’s why I’d go for pretty well anybody with a PhD (in any subject other than climatology), and there should also be some way of including those with a PhD earned at the University of Life.

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