Climate Change


“Beware!” the professor warned, of the Single Factor Theory!

“What is that, and why should I care?”, I thought. 

That was in 1960. I was an 18 year old second year university student, to whom that warning seemed merely of academic interest.  I forgot all about it for the next 60 years, until it suddenly popped up in my memory. And now I understand it. Now I care.

Many – if not almost all – of the social, environmental and economic issues facing our societies have multiple, complex causes and effects.  Yet we instinctively reject complexity, looking for simple answers to complex questions.  Easiest of all is reducing the answer to a single factor.  The appeal of the single factor theory is that it reduces everything to a binary choice: the single cause either exists or it doesn’t.  Some current examples?

Systemic Racism

When Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd the single causal factor identified was systemic racism in the police.  All police, everywhere, regardless of the individual officer’s race.  The proposed solution was to defund the police, not just in Minneapolis, but everywhere.  What about the police union contracts? As the Police Chief explained, the contracts made it difficult or impossible for a police force to discipline, or transfer to other duties, police officers like Chauvin, against whom there had already been several complaints.  Why should we assume that if George Floyd had not had black skin Derek Chauvin would have behaved differently?  And why assume most police officers, including many with black skin, are racists?

The ‘Climate Crisis’

Many governments, including Canada’s, assume that climate change is caused entirely by human activity emitting greenhouse gases (particularly CO2) and that other identifiable causes are insignificant. What about the other causes? The climate impacts of the changes in solar activity levels; sub-oceanic and surface volcanic activity; changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun; cloud formation, El Nino and other factors that may have a significant influence on the climate?  To examine, with an open mind, all the potential causes of climate change, and the rate of that change, may lead to abandoning the single factor theory that there is an immediate climate crisis, caused entirely by human activities releasing CO2.  And therefore, it would create serious doubt that all will be cured if/when the developed countries ever get to net zero. 

Other Examples of Single Factor Theories

  • Hitler’s theory that Germany’s problems were caused by the Jews, and would be solved by eliminating all the Jews in his “final solution”;
  • The white supremacist theory underlying the former apartheid regime in South Africa
  • The “separate but equal” legal theory underlying US school segregation (until set aside by the US Supreme Court in 1954)
  • The current claim that all people with white skin are privileged racists, whether they know it or not
  • Only “deplorables” would vote for Donald Trump
  • If elected, Donald Trump, all by himself, would make America great again
  • If women are not represented on corporate boards or university faculties in proportion to their percentage of the population that is only because there are systemic misogynistic barriers excluding them
  • Anyone who advocates restricting women who were assigned male identities at birth and whose adult bodies have traditionally been considered male, to have access to women’s shelters, locker rooms, prisons or sports does so because they are transphobic.
  • Housing costs in major Canadian cities have become unaffordable because foreigners who don’t live here are buying up houses for speculation and profit.

With a bit of thought you can probably add many more to the above list.

The Danger

Why are single factor theories dangerous?  Because:

  • they are usually a distortion of reality
  • their simplicity makes them widely appealing compared to more complex, but more reasonable explanations
  • they are often used by politicians to win votes by declaring “a war against” or fight against something (e.g., the late US Senator McCarthy’s crusade against alleged Communists in Hollywood; the Vietnam War against communism that ended with the fall of Saigon; the failed US invasion of Cuba, and failed policies for Iraq and Afghanistan; the war on drugs and the war on poverty)
  • they are often amplified and exaggerated with manipulative emotional language like “existential crisis”, “emergency”, “threat”, “injustice” “victim”, etc.
  • they demand that leaders deliver costly, often ineffective and even inhumane “solutions” –  if indeed the situation is really a serious “problem” that requires a “solution”

As a result where there is a real problem that is not exaggerated, these emotional pleas divert attention and resources from comprehensive, cost-effective solutions to costlier and ineffective ones  

Stay Tuned

In future blog posts I will be discussing the policies responding to some of the current hot button single factor theories.

12 replies »

  1. What a relief to read this!!

    Sometimes it seems the news/media is reporting many issues as if there is one simple solution, which there seldom is. It makes me wonder if “the medium is the message” as Marshall McLuhan said when i was a student. Is it my imagination or are too many people incapable of critical thought?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many if not most people are capable of critical thought and analysis. However, exercising critical thought takes time and effort. That is often difficult to find. For example, when someone is feeding an infant at 3 AM and getting up at 7 AM to go to work, that person is much more likely to accept without question what appears in the mainstream media or social media. Retired people like me have more time to question and research the information or misinformation or biased information presented to us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate, again, your take on issues like the ones you mentioned.

    Was the COVID pandemic a single factor situation? A goal of ‘Zero Covid’, promised with a vaccine, mitigations like lock down, mask, wash, distance – with fear and guilt liberally applied…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. COVID was and is more complex than a single factor situation. Obviously, the virus was the single reason for being infected with the virus. But the public discourse that followed as infection rates grew rapidly became complex, controversial and politicized.

    Political leaders were judged by how well their country or province/state was perceived to have done, first, in controlling infections and deaths, and then in achieving growing vaccination rates. There was also an extensive analysis of age groups, social classes and races more likely to be infected or to die from infection, or be financially impacted by lockdowns, or be the last to be vaccinated.

    It is in the emerging 20/20 hindsight that we are starting to see single factor theories, but with more than one such theory blaming more than one factor.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your question, Dennis, is posed as a rhetorical one. It has an answer nonetheless.

      Probably only 50% of the population is vaccinated against chickenpox, given that it is a recent vaccination intended only for children, against what is for most children a mild disease. And almost no one alive today in Western countries in the 21st century is vaccinated against smallpox since routine vaccination stopped in the early 1970s, several years before the disease was eradicated world-wide. The situation with polio is too complex to go into here. Now Andrew did not say that low vaccination rates are OK just because many other factors contribute to lower rates of infectious disease today—particularly the improved material well-being that comes from capitalism and reliable affordable electricity for the masses.

      Most vaccine-preventable diseases were falling in incidence as western countries got richer even before the vaccines were invented. So too were many diseases against which there is no vaccine, such as rheumatic fever which is almost never seen in the west even though children still get strep throats. Tuberculosis death rates are low now due to improved living conditions among the poor and what is usually a robust public health response to outbreaks, supported by the rest of us because of the concentration of the disease in the “marginalized”, a euphemism for the dangerous classes. And control of Covid is turning out to require more than the magic bullet of vaccination — just what, we aren’t sure yet. Most likely we will learn to live with it, with about 50% of the total population vaccinated when all the dust has settled and vaccinated old people die off to be replaced by adolescents who say “Meh” to vaccination.

      So all you have said is just a sound bite without facts. Andrew’s straightforward thesis stands: that almost all causation arises from a web of contributors, not from the action of a single cause that must be the sole focus of our efforts.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A news feature in Nature, “Climate science is supporting lawsuits that could help save the world”, raises this issue. Lawsuits are being launched by activist groups in various places around the world in hopes that courts will compel national governments to take steps to fight climate change that those governments are unwilling, because of political realities, to legislate. Central to these efforts is the degree to which “the science” supports what you refer to as the “single factor theory”: that human-made emissions of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) are so dominant that the case can be made for compelled measures unacceptable to voters (or, in non-democracies, to people who are willing to take their armed dissatisfaction with the economic consequences to the streets.) So scientists are to take the stand as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs.

    The challenge is that it is impossible to prove causation except by experiments with a control group. We have only one earth and, if you believe the prophets, no time to waste. In biomedical research there is a hierarchy of consensus about what kinds of evidence can allow progressively better confidence in causality (e.g., enough to guide treatment of the patient in front of you) when experiments in human subjects are not possible. Many of these arguments amount to special pleading, as evidenced by the frequency with which long-accepted theories of causation are demolished when it becomes possible to do an experiment, or new evidence turns up that falsifies the theory even without experiment. (Social science suffers from this as well: “Colonialism” is the single cause of health and social ills suffered by many indigenous people and “indigenization” of our institutions is the only acceptable remedy.)

    You will have seen news stories reporting that climate scientists have been issuing opinions that this or that natural disaster was “somewhat likely” or “highly likely” to have been “due” “in part” to climate change. (Or more properly, that the event was made some percentage more likely than expected because of the effect of climate change. These statements are not equivalent.) It’s like discovering over the course of several days at the roulette wheel that #16 is coming up just enough more often that you are making money betting on it, rather than losing as you should, given the odds. If the casino owner is curious as to why this is happening (and he should be!), he would have to inspect the wheel and interrogate the croupier to trouble-shoot, i.e., do experiments, to track down the cause(s) before putting the wheel back in service. Climate scientists can’t do that, so they use models in which they change various inputs to see what happens to the outputs and from that, through “attribution science” come up with a figure that, they say, extracts the contribution from GHG emissions. It will be the methods and outputs of these models that will be cross-examined in court. Complicating the issue is that the expert witnesses/scientists are themselves advocates who want to get rid of fossil fuels period.

    Sorry for the long preamble. I am interested not in the science but in your views as an expert in the law about how this would play out. Would it be possible for a court to make a determination that, in effect, the science on single factor causes was settled and then order the executive branches of governments to do things that the accountable legislatures refused to do? After all, it is one thing for a Dutch court to order the government of the Netherlands to reduce its emissions by 25% by 2020 but what happens when Netherlanders don’t meet the imposed target — they didn’t –, despite outsourcing even more manufacturing to countries who are not defendants in the lawsuit? As the article says, we’re not sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The questions you raise require somewhat complex answers. A lot depends on (i) the legal and judicial culture of the countries where the litigation is brought and (ii) the enthusiasm and skill with which the government defendants defend the lawsuits.

      (i). Legal and judicial culture

      A key concept in Anglo-Canadian law is that courts should not decide questions that are not amenable to adjudication. This includes essentially political questions that require complex economic, environmental and social trade-offs that cannot be determined by simple legal principles. Such cases are described as not being “justiciable”. Climate lawsuits may or may not be justiciable, depending on the underlying law.

      For example, a UK lawsuit against constructing another runway at Heathrow airport was successful because the UK government had legislated that such projects cannot proceed without an environmental assessment, and there had been no such assessment. The UK court was careful to emphasize that it was not judging the merits of the additional runway, but merely whether the government had complied with its own laws. This assumes, of course, that the text of the law is clear and the law is enforceable.

      In addition to justiciability there is the more subtle restraint that a court should not issue orders that cannot be enforced because this will lead to an erosion of respect for the courts. This calls into question the decision of the Dutch court ordering the government of the Netherlands to reduce the country’s emissions by 25% by 2020. If the government did not reach this court imposed target what could the court do? Reiterate its previous decision? Throw the prime minister and his officials in prison? There doesn’t appear to be anything the court can do for enforcement of its decision. In which case, I would respectfully submit that it should not have made that decision. Courts should decide cases and then make legally binding orders, not offer unenforceable political advice masquerading as a judgement.

      Finally we come to an ethical issue. To what extent is it legitimate (and practical) in a democracy for a court to fill in the gap in the law as written? There are literal constructionists who would say that a court should apply the law literally as it is written rather than expand it through something inappropriately called interpretation. On the other hand, the Canadian Supreme Court has held in numerous cases that statutory interpretation should not be too literal, but should be purposive and contextual, i.e., the court should attempt to determine and be faithful to the legislative intention. Of course discerning the legislative intention of laws written perhaps decades ago is not always easy, and there may be the temptation for the court to impose its own values and describe that as interpretation. With vague or badly drafted climate laws there is more scope than usual for creative interpretation.

      (ii) The role of the defendants in climate lawsuits

      Government defendants in such lawsuits are not always unhappy to be sued, and do not always defend lawsuits against them vigorously. An intentionally weak defence that allows the plaintiffs to win enables the government to justify its actual achievements as realistic compared to the claims in the lawsuits. It also enables the government to justify settling the litigation by taking further legislative action such as increasing the carbon tax.

      During the recent unsuccessful provincial government lawsuits against the constitutionality of the federal carbon tax I noted that the lawyers representing the provinces in no way challenged the federal lawyers’ argument that the global “climate crisis” required decisive action, in compliance with Canada’s Paris Agreement commitments. Indeed the court took what is called “judicial notice” of this as if it was an uncontroversial fact requiring no evidence. Courts are entitled to take judicial notice of facts that are open and notorious, such as that the sun will rise tomorrow at a certain time at a particular place, without requiring legal proof of such facts. But the causes, rates and consequences of planetary climate change are not uncontroversial. Nevertheless, once the provinces had conceded the scientific issues around climate change it was unremarkable that the courts took judicial notice of this, and then held that it had to be dealt with at a global level through the federal government rather than by 10 different policies by 10 provincial governments.

      What I find baffling is why the provincial lawyers conceded the scientific issue. There were plenty of expert witnesses they could have called to testify. Did these highly experienced constitutional litigators really not know how to present a stronger case? Did they secretly not want to win this case? Were they instructed to offer only token resistance? My several emails and telephone calls to the Ontario government lawyers involved in presenting the Province’s case were not returned, so I don’t know.

      What will happen in future lawsuits brought by environmental activists remains to be seen. I hope my explanation above will give you a better framework within which to understand such future litigation.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Outstanding answer that answered my questions fully and precisely, including dimensions that I hadn’t thought of. Thanks very much.
    (You can post this publicly, or not, as you wish. It doesn’t add to the discussion but I couldn’t not say it.)

    Liked by 1 person

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