The most interesting thing I’ve read all year about the climate-change debate is a book that has nothing directly to do with it.
Dan Gardner’s Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway explores, well, the title pretty sums it up. Gardner runs through a laundry list of culture-shaping fears and hopes and points out that they were almost always wrong.
Capitalism didn’t end up on the ash heap of history. World War I didn’t turn out to be the war to end all wars. Society wasn’t plunged into anarchy by the Y2K bug. The nightmare scenario of overpopulation Malthusians have been banging on about since 1798 is yet to play out.
That’s despite the likes of Paul Ehrlich (the Al Gore of the ‘70s) predicting in 1968 that: “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundred of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
It’s 2011, and somehow I still don¹t have a robot maid to clean my house or a jetpack to fly me to work.
There are solid evolutionary reasons humans are desperate to know what is likely to be coming around the corner. And there’s a class of experts who make good coin by pandering to our desperate need to glimpse the future. The only problem with this arrangement is that the experts almost never deliver on their side of the bargain.
In 1984, The Economist asked four former finance ministers, four chairmen of multinational companies, four Oxford economics students and four London dustmen to provide a 10-year forecast of what was going to happen to things like inflation, unemployment and oil prices.
A decade on, it was discovered that while nobody¹s predictions had been particularly accurate, the garbos had done as well as the corporate chairmen and considerably better than the students or former finance ministers.
The likely reason the garbologists did better than the economists probably relates to what might be labelled the paradox of prognostication. Those humble types who accept the future is very difficult to predict do much better at forecasting it than those who are supremely confident of their seer-like capabilities – usually because they’re in thrall to One Big Idea That Explains Everything.
Guess which type of expert is most likely to get media attention, research funding and political backing?
Of course, given the marketplace of ideas is filled to bursting with predictions of mankind’s imminent doom, if some course of action is or isn’t taken, there’s still the issue of which apocalypse you choose to fear.
Fortuitously enough, most of the time we opt for the one that involves people other than ourselves bearing most of the cost of taking action to stave off whatever the threat is.
It seems unlikely those men and women of a certain age who turn up to Lord Monckton’s rallies haven’t blanched at the thought of all that government money – funds that could otherwise be spent on, say, lavish benefits for self-funded retirees – being frittered away safeguarding the future of a planet they soon won’t be around to enjoy.
On the other hand, their typically young opponents can afford to be relaxed about, say, calling for massive government investment in renewable energy knowing that, in the short-term at least, it’ll be their parents and grandparents generation who¹ll picking up most of the tab for it.
Not too long ago, a clear majority of Australians feared we were at serious risk of an ecopocalypse if we didn’t price carbon. Apparently, at least half of us now believe will face economic Armageddon if we do.
Regardless of which camp you currently fall into, human nature being what it is, here’s one prediction I’m utterly confident making: at some point down the track, all of us – with the possible exceptions of Tim Flannery and Andrew Bolt – will be claiming we’d either (a) said all along that climate change was a grave threat and urged action to combat it or (b) said all along that climate change was a total media beat-up and never believed in it.
And therein lies the dirty little secret at the heart of the Nostradamus caper. With rare exceptions, neither the experts who make predictions nor the people who believe them end up wearing the consequences. With 20-20 hindsight, we all find ourselves on the right side of history.
With Tony Abbott promising the 2013 election will be a referendum on the carbon tax, it’s worth recalling the 1966 election, which was essentially a referendum on the Vietnam War.
The Coalition won an impressive victory, with a majority of voters presumably believing the much-touted prediction that if Vietnam went communist, a host of other nations would soon fall like dominoes to the Reds. How many of those voters are game to put their hand up today to say that war was worth the expenditure of blood and treasure?
So maybe a plebiscite isn’t such a stupid idea after all – as long as the way everyone votes is on the public record.
One of the advantages of being a journalist is the ability to come up with simple solutions to complex problems, so here’s mine to the carbon tax debate currently tearing the nation in two: given that the future of the planet is potentially at stake, let’s all declare our position and have some skin in the game in terms of the effects of either choosing to price carbon or walking away from doing so.
If it turns out the sceptics’ scepticism is unfounded and trillions of dollars eventually need to be thrown at containing an ecological catastrophe, then those sceptics should be the first targeted when the government goes looking for money. Stopping any government assistance they receive – old-age pensions, free medical care etc – might be a good place to start.
Alternatively, if the climate change turns out to be a false scare, warmists should be subject to significant higher rates of income tax for the rest of their working lives to help pay off the costs incurred implementing carbon-reduction schemes.
That seems like a neat solution to me, but here’s one last prediction: very few of those currently sounding off on either side of the debate would be willing to really demonstrate the courage of their convictions.