Karl Popper and Climate Change: Chapter 2

Apologies for not having posted a blog for over two months: as I am sure many readers are very aware, life keeps on interrupting one’s best intentions.  In the previous blog, I introduced Karl Popper and how his thoughts on public policy (mostly found in his piece entitled, The Poverty of Historicism) provides some useful lessons for those who have been keenly working on developing effective climate policies, alas, with relatively paltry results.

Popper notes that developing policy is too often dominated by what he terms as “holistic” approaches.  As someone whose academic background and interest is in the ‘synthetic’ philosophical tradition of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, et. al., I was first taken aback by his sharp criticisms of the holistic approach.  In fact, one of the reasons that I found climate change as a public policy issue so fascinating was the fact that an appropriate response to its anthropogenic causes called for a multi dimensional, integrated response, involving virtually all human economic and industrial activities.

I was fond of saying how climate change, if properly addressed, represented the concrete manifestation of sustainable development.  The latter term has always bothered me: while originally compelling, as laid out in the Brundtland Commissions Report of 1987 (Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), it has since degenerated into an almost meaningless phrase used to justify virtually every form of development. Climate change, or so I thought, helped to bring clarity and substance to the SD concept.

The danger of taking such a grandiose approach to developing an appropriate policy response to climate change is two fold: it does not allow for social learning and it can too easily turn the effort into a closed ideology.  By insisting that addressing climate change calls for a fundamental change in human development and behaviour it enters the ‘slippery slope’ of developing all consuming approaches that are doomed to failure.  Why? Because, the holistic or utopian approach can simply not account for the myriad of unintended consequences that are the inevitable outcome.

In contrast, Popper promotes a piecemeal or technological framework that is not unlike the approach natural scientists use in verifying physical laws/theories.   That is not to say that there will not be unintended consequences from the latter approach: of course there will, but now the social scientist will focus on anticipating them and the more manageable the policy initiative, in terms of its scope, the greater the likelihood the consequences can be addressed.  Secondly, the sorts of policies and measures intended to address fundamental patterns of human development require a strong iterative approach with civil society, one that is open to change, even in its fundamental tenets of what constitutes effective change.

Popper puts it this way: “The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he (or she of course) knows.  He knows that we can only learn from our mistakes.  Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unavoidable, unwanted consequences of any reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which make it impossible for him to disentangle causes and effects….” (Poverty of Historicism, Chapter 21: Piecemeal vs Utopian Engineering).

The implications for climate policy in today’s political environment is telling: in the current reality of 24 hour zero sum media coverage, developing any public policy, let alone policy on such a contentious and complex issue, is more than challenging.  Both sides of the debate stake their positions at ever-higher points of brinkmanship eroding the credibility of the entire debate.  There is a way out, but it does call for some humility on the side of all those seeking effective solutions.

The ‘piecemeal’ approach is decidedly not an apology for the status quo: it looks to effect change where it can be most effective and where it can lead to further developments in the fight against the threat of human induced climate change.  It is the utopian approach that leads to paralysis, since any such grand upheaval will inevitably to strong resistance and (as already noted) a myriad of consequences which any social engineer will be unprepared.

My next blog will look more in-depth at what those solutions might look like, at both international and national levels.  For now I would offer the following points for the readers’ reflection.  On the multilateral front, I believe it calls for a fundamental re-think on how we are framing the issue.  We need to develop avenues that will allow for progress in specific areas where it is possible, and not hold them hostage to the tired adage, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.  At national levels, it requires an engagement with civil society that speaks to their priorities and insecurities around their current and future (and their children’s) well-being.  Too often, national policies have been developed (or not) between government and industrial elites without the acknowledgement that it is the consumer/civil society  that will be ultimately implicated in any future course.  This is where the learning, on the part of the policy developer, must start.