How SUVs conquered the world – at the expense of its climate

I was interviewed by The Guardian (UK) newspaper about Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs): how they came to dominate the US market, and their damage to the environment, cities and people:

How SUVs conquered the world – at the expense of its climate,”  The Guardian, 1 September 2020.

The article was also reprinted in Slate:

C U, SUV: The hulking car has become the world’s most dominant form of transportation—and one of its biggest climate threats,” Slate, 8 September 2020.

 

Should we always play dumb in science?

A recent article by Naomi Oreskes (co-author of the brilliant but depressing The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future) questions why we always play dumb in climate science [Playing Dumb on Climate Change].

Prof. Oreskes argues the well-accepted (read: rarely questioned) 95% confidence limit in statistical tests is a severe standard: it reflects a greater fear of Type I errors (false positives) over Type II errors (false negative).  It essentially asks scientists to “play dumb”: pretend they know nothing about the phenomenon and reject causality unless there is only a 1 in 20 odds that the observed relationship occurred by chance.

But, the 95% confidence standard is a convention: it has no basis in nature.  What if we’re not so dumb – instead of a blank slate, what if we have good theory to guide our empirical investigation?  Or, what if the consequences of a false negative are much greater than a false positive?  Should accept lower odds of a Type I error (and higher odds of a Type II error) by lowering the required confidence level?  What is that level?  Should it vary?

Solid theory and high consequences from false negatives is certainly the case for climate science.  But, this is a much broader issue across all sciences.  Why 95%?  During the birth of statistics in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were good reasons to play dumb.  There are good reasons to be smarter now.

Technology will not save us

A pair of sobering reports have received media attention recently.  One is a study led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory geographer Thomas Wilbanks on the possibility of cascading system failures due to climate change [New Government Report Warns of ‘Cascading System Failures’ Caused By Climate Change].  A second report is a NASA study about how a ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global systems. [NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?]

We have mistaken impression that civilization is a progressive march in the forward direction only.  But history is littered with civilizations such as the Roman Empire, Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, all of whom were sophisticated and advanced (for their time).  The NASA study involved natural and social scientists who studied these dynamics and identified five major factors related to societal collapse: Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.  These factors can converge to generate two social outcomes: pressure on resources due to strains on ecological carrying capacity and the stratification of society into rich and poor.   Both have played a role in the collapse of societies over the past 5000 years.

Technology won’t save us.  Technology can make processes more efficient, but can also lead to greater consumption of resources by lowering cost and therefore increasing demand (an outcome sometimes referred to as Jevon’s Paradox).   And technological societies are brittle.  As Wilbanks and team point out, the services provided by infrastructures have interdependencies that can lead to cascading failures.   For example, during Hurricane Katrina, the loss of electricity meant that oil pipelines could not ship and refineries in the region could not operate, leading to higher gas prices across the country.  Contemporary lifestyles rely on these intricate webs of infrastructure services, rendering society vulnerable to localized events that propagate widely and cause major disruption.

Required is social change: a reduction of economic inequality to diminish potential for social disruption, and reduction in resource consumption through renewable resources and slower population growth.  In other words, we must find ways to reduce the external threats to our technological and societal systems: hardening our infrastructure by itself will not help.