Thoughts Karl Popper May Have Had About Climate Change

In August, 2007, I attended one of the innumerable international climate change negotiations that have taken place over the last 20 plus years.  This one was being held in Vienna, Austria and these particular sessions were held in preparation for the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, specifically focusing on additional commitments by Annex 1 Parties under the Kyoto Protocol and a dialogue on long term cooperative action to address climate change.

Sounds rather drab, doesn’t it?  Well, in fact, it was very much the opposite.   The talks took on an almost ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality with the rhetoric completely out of synch with reality.  This was epitomized by an impassioned intervention by a government delegate for Sudan (this was at the height of the Darfur crisis) calling for equity, democracy, decency and justice for all.  The reaction?   Most members of the NGO community leapt to their feet and provided a standing ovation for a few minutes.   I remember thinking, “has rationality completely left this process “?

I then noticed above the entryway that the conference room was named in commemoration of Karl Popper, a brilliant Austrian philosopher from last century who played a critical role in reviving the legitimacy of scientific and logical inquiry in the aftermath of two calamitous world wars.  In simpler words, he was a most eloquent apologist for common sense and managed to apply it in so many ways, including public policy.  So it struck me – what would Herr Popper have to say about climate change and developing appropriate policy responses to it (besides rolling over in his grave if he were privy to  much of the climate change negotiations)?

It turns out, he has quite a lot to say.  In a piece to follow, I will speak to the relevance of his approach on scientific inquiry to the ongoing debate around the physical veracity of climate change.   In this blog, I will begin speaking to his thoughts on public policy and its relevance for the climate and broader sustainable development debate.

In my first blog I talked about the challenges of sustainable development, particularly when attempting to implement it through public policies and measures.  Popper’s response to this would be that too often public policy designers typically believe in the predictive qualities of social science. In fact, the empirical evidence shows public policy initiatives are far from failsafe in providing the expected results – we only have to witness the roll out of so called ‘Obama Care’ last year in the US.  This is not to say that there is no role for public policies in areas of common welfare.  Of course there is, but the lessons of climate policy and public pricing signals reiterate the need to appreciate the complexities involved in implementing effective policies.

Popper states that the first objective of social science is to “trace the unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions” [1] (which of course very much includes public policy).  For those of us involved in climate policy development, it is hardly controversial to say that the overwhelming modus operandi was an assumption in the overwhelming predictive and positive effects of well intended climate policies. This naiveté has worked to set back effective actions to address this real threat for decades – and has given the naysayers more than enough ammunition to further deter meaningful progress.

Future policy development must be wiser about its limitations and the need to enter the process through a model of what I call ‘participatory trial and error’.   It must also start with some simple postulations that would help define the parameters of what is – and is not – possible in effectively addressing climate change and other impacts of human activities on Gaia.

My next blog will further explore some of these issues.  The time spent over the last 30 years has seen few results and results that are far from sufficient in effectively addressing so called ‘planetary boundaries’.  It is time we all took a step back and learned from our mistakes.  Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity:  trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

[1] See Prediction and Prophecy in the Social Sciences, a lecture delivered at the 10th International Congress of Philosophy. Amsterdam, 1948.