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Thus does a large group of eminent scientists frame a pretty gloomy assessment (ScienceDaily summation here) of the failure of multilateral cooperation on a wide range of threats facing Earth, including,

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects

Depressingly, there’s nothing to argue with there. But the fact that the authors feel the need to follow the above with the caveat that they are not advocating for countries to abandon sovereignty is troubling for two reasons. First, that scientists are so jumpy about charges of elitism that they feel the need to preemptively defend against the insane (and inevitable) charges from cranks (e.g., some U.S. senators) that global warming is some kind of hoax being perpetuated in the service of a one-world government. Or something.

Secondly, the caveat makes me itch because the authors leave the door open substantially for something similar in their conclusion:

The institution of the nation-state has helped improve the well-being of many individuals, but at the cost of reduced global resilience. To address our common threats we need greater interaction among existing institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.

Their proposed solutions on global climate change, fisheries depletion and increased drug-resistance among drugs are to strengthen existing institutions (e.g., WHO) and introduce new institutions along similar lines (e.g., following the WTO). That’s fine as far as it goes, but the thrust of the editorial is to point out the failures of existing frameworks, and the frustration at free-rider problems and the inadequacy of current decision-making processes for addressing these issues. I don’t think it’s reading too many tea leaves to focus on this sentence and parse it out further:

The major powers must be willing to enforce agreements, but legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse countries and by nongovernmental actors, such as civil society and business. [emphasis mine]

I try not to get too paranoid about these things, but this taps pretty deeply into one of my fears with how the conversation on climate change is going to develop over the next 10-20 years. Scientists are rationalists and many are either very bad at or just can’t quite understand the functioning of politics (or are continually frustrated by the results – rightly so, often). Politics, indeed, isn’t very rational. And at the same time, for anyone who cares to look, we’re at a pretty grim moment for the continuance of human civilization along the lines which we’ve grown used to. Many scientists are getting pretty tired of pointing out this fact. As our institutions of shared collaborative decision-making (or not-making, as it may be) continue to dither in the face of planetary doom, it’s a great fear of mine that scientists will look for alternate means of addressing what they see (correctly) as increasingly dire climactic instability. In short, business: the actor with the means and motivation to address these issues on a massive scale, but not answerable to a larger (and often-annoying) polity. The thing is – and I’ve got plenty of dystopian SF narratives to back me up here! – it might work. Multinational corporate rule might save us from planetary self-destruction (or not), but at the great expense of human liberty.

I think that would be a Bad Thing. What would be a Good Thing, would be if scientists would get more engaged in politics. It’s a messy irrational business but that’s how it goes. Rather than pre-emptively defending themselves against Inhofian nonsense, why doesn’t a physics prof at the University of Oklahoma run against him? Or any and every other anti-science, climate-change-denying buffoon out there?

Would they win? Most likely not. But politics isn’t all about winning – or at least, not about winning one particular election. It’s about narratives, and the narrative of a widespread, grassroots effort from scientists to directly address the problems that they seeĀ  – rightly – as threatening our continued survival as a species would be a compelling one.

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