Last week, there was a headline-making Big Science discovery that had people variously amazed, dazed and confused. What on earth is a “Higgs boson,” people were asking, and why should I care? The short answer: “The particle is the final piece of the jigsaw in the Standard Model, a theory explaining how the universe is built, and its existence would help scientists gain a better understanding of how galaxies hold together.” As Joe Biden might say, that’s a big f***ing deal!
Anyway, what I heard last week in the discussion of the Higgs boson, aka the “God particle,” was largely amazement and confusion. What I did NOT hear were voices of doubt, denial, skepticism, anger, outrage, etc. Zero. Nada. Zip. A wild contrast, in other words, to the skeptical, angry, outraged, tinfoil-hat-conspiracy-theory response we get whenever there’s a new discovery, or yet another piece of evidence confirming the theory, or even discussion of the old pieces of evidence (we’ve now had over 100 years of quantitative investigation on this subject) regarding climate science. Why the stark contrast? Why, in short, is there no “Higgs boson-gate,” just like there was a contrived “climate-gate” controversy that even smart (albeit crazy) people like Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli latched onto (note that a federal court recently demolished Cuccinelli on this one, and rightly so)? A few points to ponder:
First, as John Parnell of the group “Responding to Climate Change” writes, nobody is “raking over the neutrino incident” (“A few months later they confessed they’d just made a simple error, a mistake in a calculation or a fault with a GPS receiver were suggested. They duly corrected it and went about their business.”) because particle physics “is a fairly non-politicised topic.” But why is that? As a comment on that article notes, in part it’s because “most of the public find CERN incomprehensible and irrelevant.” In stark contrast, the concept of climate science is extremely simple to understand — basically, if you can understand what the backyard greenhouse does, or why a thicker blanket keeps in more heat, you’ve largely got the concept — so anyone and everyone feels free to discuss and debate it. Very different with Higgs boson, which almost nobody even comes close to truly understanding (chalk me up in that category).
Second, and far more importantly, the big difference between Higgs boson and climate science is that the former doesn’t threaten anyone or imply any major changes in our way of life (at least not anytime soon). In stark contrast, climate science threatens all kinds of powerful, wealthy, entrenched interests (think ExxonMobil, OPEC, the Koch brothers, the coal industry, pretty much anyone who produces, transports, processes, or relies on fossil fuels for their business model). In addition, the glaringly obvious implication of climate science is that if it’s valid, which clearly it is in scientific terms (if not fully in public opinion), then major changes to the way we power our economy, and our lives, immediately jump out at us. Ultimately, what climate science is telling us if that we have to stop spewing carbon into the atmosphere. That, in turn, implies a rapid ramp-down of the carbon-based fuel industries, particularly the two worst offenders, oil and coal.
Third, unlike with Higgs boson, climate science tells us that we need to (gasp!) make changes in the way we power our lives. Of course, if we scale up clean energy and energy efficiency, there’s absolutely no reason why our quality of life can’t be just as high, actually higher, than it is now — and almost certainly at lower long-run cost, not even counting the vast, negative “externalities” (pollution, wars, massive expenditures on fuel, political instability and corruption, etc.) associated with fossil fuel production and consumption. Thus,
Finally, it’s important to point out that there are differences between the science that led to the Higgs-Boson discovery, and the science that led to the discovery and fleshing out of climate change/global warming. That’s to be expected, as these are two significantly different types of science, investigating significantly different natural phenomena. Having said that, however, as Michael Levi, Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations explains, “Waiting for perfect knowledge is great when we’re trying to understand the origins of the universe. It’s downright dangerous when it comes to protecting ourselves from dangers at hand.” In short, with Higgs boson, we could afford to waste our time with a “gate” or two, yet we’re unlikely to ever have one for the reasons mentioned above. With climate science, we can NOT afford to waste time with a “gate” or two, not to mention reams of fossil-fuel-industry-funded “deniers” and “skeptics,” yet we’re very likely to keep having them, for the reasons mentioned above. In short, humans have this one completely backwards, with the future of our planet and possibly our species – not to mention thousands of other species – on the line. So far, we as a species are miserably failing the test, getting caught up in ignorance, idiocy, and flat-out greed, not to mention faux-“gates” and other supposed “scandals” that invariably turn out to be not worth wasting 2 seconds of our time on. Sigh…
P.S. It’s worth pointing out that there are also enormous business/economic opportunities — many trillions of dollars in potential revenues – waiting out there for smart entrepreneurs who seize the opportunities implied by the climate-driven need for a rapid transition of our energy economy. That SHOULD be a countervailing force to the deniers, but unfortunately the fossil fuel industries are wealthy and entrenched, with strong political allies (bought and paid for, largely) to back them up. In sum, it’s not a level playing field or a fair fight at this point, at least not economically or politically speaking.