A coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. The U.S. power sector must cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, according to federal regulations unveiled in June. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
July 25

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University. Erik Conway is a historian of science and technology at the California Institute of Technology. They are the co-authors of “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future” (Columbia University Press), from which this article is excerpted.

It’s 2393. A historian is recounting the collapse of Western civilization due to catastrophic climate change. In her anniversary lecture, she explains how the carbon-combustion complex and blind faith in free markets during the late 20th and early 21st centuries conspired to prevent action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, until it was too late to prevent the Mass Migration of 2093 and the inundation of the world’s great coastal cities. But first, she has to introduce a few old concepts and terms that may no longer be familiar to her audience:

Bridge to renewables

The logical fallacy, popular in the first decades of the 21st century, that the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel combustion could be solved by burning more fossil fuels, particularly natural gas. The fallacy rested on an incomplete analysis, which considered only the physical byproducts of combustion, particularly in electricity generation, and not the other factors that controlled overall energy use and net release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Cryosphere

The portions of the Earth’s surface, including glaciers, ice sheets, sea ice and permafrost on land, that used to be frozen.

Environment

The archaic concept which, separating humans from the rest of the world, identified the nonhuman component as something that carried particular aesthetic, recreational or biological value (see environmental protection). Sometimes the “natural” environment was distinguished from the “built” environment, contributing to the difficulty that 20th-century humans had in recognizing and admitting the pervasive and global extent of their impact. Radical thinkers, such as Paul Ehrlich as well as Dennis and Donella Meadows (a 20th-century husband-and-wife team), recognized that humans are part of their environment and dependent upon it, and that its value was more than aesthetic and recreational; that the natural world was essential for human employment, growth, prosperity and health. These arguments were commonly disparaged, but the idea of environmental protection contained at least partial recognition of this point.

Environmental protection

The archaic late-20th-century concept that singled out the nonhuman environment (see environment) for legal protection, typically in response to damaging economic activity (see external costs).

External costs

In capitalist economic systems (see capitalism; invisible hand), prices for goods and services were based upon what the market “would bear” (i.e., what consumers were willing and able to pay), without regard to social, biological or physical costs associated with manufacture, transport and marketing. These additional costs, not reflected in prices, were referred to as “external” because they were seen as being external to markets and therefore external to the economic system in which those markets operated (see market failure). Economists of this era found it difficult to accept that one could not have an economy without the resources provided by this “external” environment.

Fugitive emissions

Leakage from wellheads, pipelines, refineries, etc. Considered “fugitive” because the releases were supposedly unintentional, at least some of them (e.g., methane venting at oil wells) were in fact deliberate. While widely acknowledged by engineers to exist, the impacts of fugitive emissions were minimized by the carbon-combustion complex and its defenders, and thus went largely unaccounted (see bridge to renewables; capitalism; external costs). Some went so far as to insist that because methane was a commercially valuable gas, it was impossible that corporations would allow it to “escape.”

Human adaptive optimism

(1) The belief that there are no limits to human adaptability — that we can either adapt to any circumstances or change them to suit ourselves. Belief in geoengineering as a climate “solution” was a subset of HAO. (2) The capacity of humans to remain optimistic and adapt to changed circumstances, even in the face of daunting difficulties, and even if the form of “adaptation” required is suffering.

Invisible hand

A form of magical thinking, popularized in the 18th century, which held that economic markets in a capitalist system were “balanced” by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which ensured both that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs.

Market failure

The social, personal and environmental costs that market economies imposed on individuals and societies were referred to as “market failures.” The concept of market failure was an early recognition of the limits of capitalist theory.

Physical scientists

The practitioners in a network of scientific disciplines derived from the 18th-century natural philosophy movement. Overwhelmingly male, they emphasized study of the world’s physical constituents and processes — the elements and compounds; atomic, magnetic and gravitational forces; chemical reactions; flows of air and water — to the neglect of biological and social realms, and focused on reductionist methodologies that impeded understanding of the crucial interactions between the physical, biological and social realms.

Sink

A place where wastes accumulated, either deliberately or not. Industrial powers of the 20th century treated the atmosphere and oceans as sinks, wrongly believing them capable of absorbing all the wastes humans produced, in perpetuity.

Statistical significance

The archaic concept that an observed phenomenon could be accepted as true only if the odds of it happening by chance were very small, typically taken to be no more than 1 in 20.

Type I error

The conceptual mistake of accepting as true something that is false.

Type II error

The conceptual mistake of rejecting as false something that is true. In the 20th century it was believed that a Type I error was worse than a Type II error. The rejection of climate change proved the fallacy of that belief.

Twitter: @NaomiOreskes

@ErikMConway

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Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science at Harvard University.