Climate change and the “180 degrees fallacy”

Posted by in Climate

When a leader guides a company, a country or even the whole world towards some predefined goal, it’s easy to change course when you realize you are some angle of your bearing. But once for some obscure reason you’ve succeeded in actively moving a whole caravan in the opposite direction of the truth, it becomes almost impossible to acknowledge the error. It’s the worst form of cognitive dissonance imaginable, since you are having it exactly and perfectly wrong. 

I defined and experienced the horror of the “180 degrees fallacy”, when years ago as a hiking guide I took a big group along a beautiful trail alongside a stream running through a narrow canyon. The sun was setting right in the middle of the canyon sparkling amazing orange sunbeams towards us. Going eastward we should have been arriving at the exit of the canyon and the parking lot soon. Suddenly it dawned on me that there is no way the sun settles in the east. Also according to the map we should have been walking down stream, but in fact were walking upstream.

Unifying experience

Not a panicky type I pressed on jolted along by the screams of excitement from the group awestruck by the dazzling sunset. This was clearly a unifying experience. How wonderful it would be to just continue in the splendor. But the map didn’t lie: to get to the parking we definitely needed to move east and downstream, not west and upstream. In disbelief I turned the map upside down to check if that would solve the matter. It didn’t. So I had no choice but to suddenly stop – Forest Gump style – gathering the group and telling them the good news – “we just had this beautiful little hike filling us all with joy and a sense of meaning” – and the bad news – “an hour ago at the little bridge we started following the wrong path following this tributary upstream”. The mea culpa was accepted and I managed to have the group follow me to where I assured them the parking would be. 

Since then I have found many examples of 180 degrees fallacies both in my personal life and in politics and science. One of the biggest of them all is the proven lie that saturated fat is bad for cardiovascular health. With, as a magnificent epicycle, the French paradox: if they have perfect heart health it must be from red wine since they eat so much saturated fat. No! It’s the saturated fat stupid! It’s the saturated fat that keeps the French healthy by increasing their HDL cholesterol, and it kept the rest of the world healthy until margarine was introduced and for the first time in recorded history heart attacks started appearing. 

Clean coal is the greenest energy

With climate change we have fallen into a host of bad 180 degree fallacies at the same time. The most obvious example is what we have come to call “green energy”. Everybody wants a greener world and reverse desertification, and yet we have demonized the most important growth factor for plants, the sole food for plants, a pollutant. It is now perfectly normal to see businesses and projects use green leaves in their marketing and proudly add “CO2 free” as well. Which is like showing a fish with “water free” or a vegan lion. It is perfectly fine to be worried about warming or sea level rise, but we should still agree that no energy source can ever be greener than clean coal. It is fundamentally impossible to be greener than coal, as in: most beneficial to plant growth. As in: putting a smile on every plant in town. Youtube is loaded with DIY videos of how to increase CO2 for indoor plants. It would make way for much more honest discussions like: “OK let’s not risk sea level rise, so let’s not do the green energy”. It’s a kind of hygiene of words and language.

The next obvious candidate is “warmth”. Everybody likes warmth. Biodiversity is high in warm places and low in cold places. Warming the planet therefore leads to more biodiversity. In the Medieval Warm Period Greenland was green and wine was produced in England. So let’s stay logical and not pollute our language by suddenly calling warmth and warming a bad thing. Will very hot places not get too hot then? Well in hot places people either don’t work at all in the afternoon and lie in the shade, so a few extra degrees won’t matter either, or we crank up the air conditioning a bit which in the best case scenario emits more CO2 and greens the planet more. And areas covered with leaves stay cooler. And what about the deaths of old people in the Paris heatwave? They did die of heat, but only because their fallacious low salt diet based on erroneous science halted their sweat production.  

Then we are stuck in a “Rockefeller bad, oil bad” argument. That’s also a 180 degrees fallacy since in early times oil soaked up in cloth from little rivers in Pennsylvania had been a healthy skin potion. Then kerosene replaced whale oil and saved the whales, and then it became the engine for all the good of modernity. And yes Rockefeller did some bad things, he monopolized, he killed early adoption of electric transport, he even puth medicine on it’s road to pharmageddon, but that shouldn’t blind us to the completely obvious fact that oil is a boon to society and is also feeding plants when it is burnt. The longer we fool ourselves about this the deeper we lock ourselves up into the fallacy. 

Collapse porn

Even how we perceive words like “change”, “growth” and “energy” in the panicky climate lingo is a “180 degree fallacy” since it could and should be opposite. Think about it: in business it’s all about “agility” and embracing change. In the personal development space “growth”, “energy” and “abundance” are what we strive towards. Concerning nature however, we have talked ourselves into a depressed worldview of “austerity ecology” and “collapse porn” as Leigh Phillips coined it in his “defense of growth, progress, industry and stuff”. We have come to see nature as this ultra fragile thing that needs to remain stable forever in order not to completely fall apart. 

Nature is not in equilibrium

Let’s turn to “ecology”. The writings of the German evolutionary biologist Josef Reichholf (1945) turn everything we always thought we knew about ecology on its head. His beautiful German climate book is called (translated) “A short natural history of the last thousand years”. It abounds in delightful anecdotes about the Medieval Warm Period and the Litte Ice Age. It has been translated into Chinese, but not into English, if you believe it. Equally important and equally  not translated is his book “Stable Imbalances and the future of Ecology”. The title says it all: nature is not, has never been and will never be in equilibrium in any way. Nature is a set of stable imbalances, continually unpredictably changing into new stable imbalances. So again a “180 degrees fallacy” to think about nature as an equilibrium when in reality it’s the exact opposite.   

Everything changes because everything changes

Reichholf points out that we still adhere to the long rejected catastrophe theory of Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) and the erroneous stationary view of ecology as proposed in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919). He claims that we haven’t fully come to grips with Darwin’s theory of evolution yet. Reichholf illustrates the tremendous flexibility with which nature deals with climate fluctuations. He summarizes Darwin as follows: “Life changes because the nature in which it exists is changeable”. In other words: everything changes because everything changes. It is the panta rhei of the Greek philosopher Herakleitos. 

And yet we are moving 180 degrees the other way with an unquestionable belief that our climate should not change. Glaciers should stay the same length – when they have been continuously accreting and depleting for centuries. The fully benign natural gas carbon dioxide shouldn’t rise even though plants are screaming for more. While we joyfully experience wild temperature swings of tens of degrees on a daily or annual basis, average temperature must not change. And even though dike building is a Sumerian technology brought to perfection by the Dutch, the sea level must remain stable too.      

Doing a Forest Gump

The 70’s and 80’s were the apex of ecology research based on equilibrium systems thinking. It was a perfect marriage with the heyday of environmentalism. By now the honest part of the science of ecology has moved on to more realistic concepts of interrelatedness and change, but as a society we are still moving the wrong way, deeper and deeper into the dead end of climate alarmism with it’s arbitrary tipping points and its denial of natural change. What it takes to get out of the “180 degrees” fallacy is, first and foremost to recognize these pernicious fallacies exist and second to prepare leaders not to press on with agenda’s regardless, but to be capable of doing a Forest Gump halt, offering a heartfelt sorry to the crowd of followers, and starting to lead exactly 180 degrees the opposite way.