Jordan Peterson On Climate Change

Always willing to answer a question, Jordan Peterson didn’t avoid the question of Climate Change when asked about it at his Cambridge Union appearance. Given his positions find some middle ground between right and left (such as his comments on abortion and gay marriage), as well as his affinity for science, we thought his comments here would be interesting to dissect. Depending on where one stands on the political spectrum, his comments may or may not dissapoint. As always we’ll give the full question about climate change, as well as his full answer, then we’ll provide some context. 

Questioner: 

Drought, flooding, and ocean acidification unanticipated for 65 million years all result from climate change according to over 700 of your fellow scientists. So I was wondering whether you thought climate change could be an issue that could unite us all, left and right, moving us beyond debates about C-16 to discussions at the UN at [inaudible 00:00:25] next month where perhaps humanity might finally discover it’s global map of meaning?

Peterson’s Response on Climate Change

Jordan began a long winded response, which we’ll attempt to unpack one at a time. Jordan begins “No. (pause) I mean there’s, there’s, there’s a couple of reasons..I mean, the first reason is, I spent a lot of time reading, I worked for a UN committee for two years on sustainable economic and ecological development and read a very large amount during that period of time and learned a lot. Much of which made me much more optimistic than I had been before I read the relevant literature, which was a real shock to me. But the climate change issue is an absolutely catastrophic nightmarish mess, and the idea that that will unite us is, that’s, that’s not going to unite us.”

Now we get to the real crux of Jordan’s agruments about climate change, and we’ll just go one at a time.

“I mean, first of all it’s very difficult to separate the science from the politics.”

There are two fields that Jordan is referencing described as “Science for policy” (how science should inform public policy) and “Policy for science” (how policies should improve the scientific endeavour).  Climate change is the ultimate example because it prominently touches both fields. For the sake of brevity, Jordan is talking about the former of the two, while seemingly granting some of the claims about the science. Just note that Peterson immediately wants to get into the limitations over proposed solutions, more than it seems that he wants to refute the science. However he will touch on that in his next point:

“And second, even if the claims, the more radical claims are true, we have no idea what to do about it. And so no (it’s not going to unite the world), and besides it’s even worse than that. Here’s one of the worst things about the whole mess is, so as you project outwards with regards to your climate change projections which are quite unreliable to begin with and the unreliability of the measurement magnifies as you move forward in time obviously, ’cause the, the errors accumulate. And so if you go out 50 years, the error bars around the projections are already so, so wide that we won’t be able to measure the positive or negative effects of anything we do right now. So how in the world are you going to solve a problem when you can’t even measure the consequence of your actions? Like, how is that even possible.”

Alright so what Dr. Peterson is talking about has to do with the nature of scientific models in general and the complexity of climate change models in particular. Essentially, every model is going to have some uncertainty because every variable cannot be accounted for in real time. Imagine, if you will, if we knew the fundamental laws of physics. Theoretically we could predict where every atom is going and (perhaps) extrapolate that to predict the future with absolute certainty (from how hot it will be in two weeks, to what movie you’ll see tomorrow).

However we couldn’t. Because we’d have to know not just what and how all the particles interact with each other (a unified field theory) but the starting location and velocities of all the relevant particles (which, for arguments sake, let’s say is impossible). This is, more or less, the situation in atmospheric science: we think we have a good grip on how the science works but there’s just so many variables that any uncertainty multiplies over any period of time. The model can then be compared against what actually happened, and then we can compare the model’s against each other to see which is more accurate.

We’ll have to do a standalone article on this, but just know that Jordan is “right” about the uncertainty, especially uncertainty over time, but that doesn’t mean that the climate models aren’t tracking something with some relative accuracy. Obviously not ideal, but it does beg the necessary question: how much uncertainty is needed for policy to act?

Ok back to Peterson:

“And, and besides that, well, well, what, what’s the solution? What are we gonna do? Switch to wind and solar, well good luck with that, just try it and see what happens, we can’t store the power. Germany tried it, they produce more carbon dioxide than they did when they started because they had to turn on their coal fired plants again, that wasn’t a very good plan. Well we don’t want nuclear, it’s like, okay what happens at night? Oh, the sun goes down. Well isn’t that something we shouldn’t have taken, that we should have taken into account? Oh, I mean you gotta flip on the coal fired plants. Well so, it was a complete catastrophe and all that happened was the price of electricity shot up, there’s like, zero utility. So that’s, that’s not a solution. So what are we gonna do about it?

Well we should cut back, we can’t consume as much as we, as we are all consuming. It’s like, well maybe…except the data that I’ve read indicate that if you can get the GDP of people up to about 5000 dollars a year then they start caring about the environment and the environment cleans up. So you could make a perfectly strong case I think, and a reasonable one, perhaps even a humane one, that the actual idea would be to get everybody in the world who’s poor, desperately so, out of poverty as fast as possible which would increase consumption in the short term because then they’d start to care about the environment and things would clean up. It’s like, okay, well what are we gonna do about global warming? Well, good luck figuring that out, I don’t see a solution on the horizon.”

Jordan Peterson Brings in Bjorn Lomborg

With the above quote, Dr. Peterson segues nicely to Bjorn Lomborg’s work who is the researcher at the heart of this particular aspect of the climate change question: quantifying the importance of climate change compared to other problems. In the name of free speech, we’ll post the full response here where Jordan closes up his remarks. However we’ll provide less commentary than we did in the above passages:

“I look at Bjorn Lomborg’s work, I really like Bjorn Lomborg, I think he’s a real genius you can look him up if you want. He took the um, UN millennial goals, there’s 200 of them, that’s way too many goals if you’re serious about goals by the way, because 200 goals isn’t a plan, it’s a wishlist. You have to prioritize, I’m serious, you have to prioritize. But they won’t prioritize because each of the goals has it’s constituents and if you prioritize then you irritate the constituents, and but, if you don’t prioritize then you can’t implement the plan.

So what Lomborg did was gather a team of, teams of economists, multiple teams, some of whom were Nobel Prize winning economists. He had them assemble teams, he had them rank order uh, development goals in terms of their return on investment, all, all of the teams, then he averaged across the teams and came with a final list an, and addressing global warming wasn’t even on the list of the most fundamental, he wrote a book called How To Spend 75 Billion Dollars To Make The World A Better Place. And that’s not very much money on a global scale, almost everything that he recommended had to do with increased child nutrition in developing, in developing countries. It’s like, these things are complicated man, these are complicated. Well, let’s fix global warming. It’s like, okay, well good luck with that.

First of all, how are you going to do that? And to think that will unite us, it’s certainly not uniting us so far, so no. And uh, and it’s just, it’s just, it’s the kind of low resolution thinking that just gets us absolutely nowhere. I like what Lomborg did way better, I think it’s way more intelligent. So, you know, if you, if you increased child nutrition enough and, and you produce another I don’t know, ten million geniuses as a consequence of that, then maybe one of them will figure out what to do about global warming. Well I’m serious about that, you know? It’s not a bad thing to increase the total sum of human brain power, you know?

And so, you, you, we treat these things so lightly. Well, let’s fix the planet. Well we’re gonna concentrate on global warming, well why global warming? Well ’cause everyone thinks that’s the biggest catastrophe. Well maybe it is but if you don’t have a solution, well and then what about all of those other problems? What are you gonna do about them? Well we’ll ignore them because we can feel good about you know, being concerned about global warming. It’s like, I don’t, I don’t, you know, one of the reasons, there’s more trees in the northern hemisphere than there were a hundred years ago, no one knows that but it’s true and by a substantial margin. You know why in part? Because people burned coal instead of wood. It’s like everyone says, “Well we shouldn’t burn coal.” It’s like, okay fair enough, what do you wanna do, burn trees instead? ‘Cause that’s what poor people would have done.

It’s like coal isn’t good, well it’s better than burning wood. So these things are complicated. So they’re, they’re unbelievably complicated, and so, no, it’s not gonna unite us. And we’re not gonna do a damn thing about it, either, so it doesn’t really matter. So, well what are we gonna do? You gonna stop like, having heat? You gonna stop having electricity? You gonna stop driving your cars? You’re gonna stop taking trains? It’s like you know, are you gonna stop using your iPhones? You’re not gonna do any of that and no wonder. So, so no.”

As always, should we become aware that Jordan has changed his opinion or should new evidence be submitted that we have either misconstrued his opinion or failed to include important statements from him, we will 1) make the correction, 2) note the correction here, 3) issue a mea culpa that attempts to explain and improve on how we missed this. This is particular article is a special case because we have limited resources or references to the subject. We assumed it’s better to arm people with factual but limited information than fictional information. 

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