Occasionally a thread goes on long enough, and drifts far enough away from its main topic, that it makes sense to shift the evolved topic up to the top level. So let’s tackle the topic of global warming, to which another thread drifted. I should emphasize that I enjoy such drift–it’s indicative that a real conversation is going on.
I admit to not paying much attention to the global warming issue. We all have limits to our attention, and despite the prevalence of the issue, it just hasn’t grabbed my attention for about eight years now (which in this rapidly advancing field of study, leaves me hopelessly behind). But let me say that over the years I’ve slowly drifted from being mildly skeptical to accepting that it’s apparently happening (not that I’m personally losing any sleep over it).*
But accepting that the basic scientific question has been resolved, important policy questions remain: 1) Can we reduce our CO2 emissions sufficiently to significantly reduce warming without severely diminishing our standards of living, and 2) Can we adjust to it without severely diminishing our standard of living?
Whichever of those two we can best do is what we should do.
Notice what assumptions I am rejecting. For one, I am rejecting the assumption that scientific evidence of X is in itself sufficient reason to create a policy to counter X. Scientists often seem to think their findings are sufficient in themselves to dictate what public policies we should have. One of my best friends is a scientist who occasionally says, “I know the science, I can tell you exactly what we ought to do.” But policy analysts haven’t accepted this concept for over half a century now (after dabbling with it as a derivative of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theories, coupled with the then-popular belief in wide-scale social planning done by intellectual elites). Successfully defining problem X does not tell us what society ought to value. The scientific evidence of problem X is an objective fact, but values are subjective–we can never objectively prove that people “ought” to value non-X.
I am also rejecting the assumption that the fact of a human cause for an environmental problem is in itself sufficient justification for a policy to reverse that human-caused effect. For example, the area I grew up in was formerly part of the Great Black Swamp, which was drained for agriculture. Plug up the field tiles, and it will revert to swamp pretty darn quickly. But I don’t think we ought to do so on a large scale (although restoring parts of it, just because we’d like to have some more swamp, would suit me just fine).
Finally, I reject the assumption that just because problem X will cause severe disruptions to human society, those disruptions in themselves are sufficient justification for a policy to reverse X. If the policy causes greater disruptions, then it may make sense to live with problem X.
Some of the changes proposed to counter AGW I support as a matter of principle irrespective of AGW concerns. Coal has multiple negative environmental and health effects (but of course is also a very inexpensive source of energy), and in general I support the idea of policies that shift us away from relying on coal as our primary energy source.**
But I don’t support a policy of ending globalization and international shipment of food. That means humans either do without the variety of foods we like or grow them all locally. We could produce bananas and caviar here in Michigan, but it would take less energy to import them.
I have heard AGW activists say we have only five years to act before it’s too late. (I have been hearing for several years now, ironically, so I’m not sure if it’s already too late to act or not.) But anyone who thinks China is going to phase out, or even significantly reduce, their fossil fuel use over the next five years is paying absolutely no attention to China’s internal politics and demand for economic development. Any policy that takes as it’s starting point a claim that the world must make radical change within the next five years is a guaranteed loser. Even if true, it’s a truth that will have zero political effect, so it’s a truth engaged in only by the politically naive.
I reiterate that I haven’t been following the issue for a number of years now, so there may be answers to these questions that I am not up to date on. But even if I have missed the answers they are the right questions for the non-knowledgeable to ask. At the time I was paying attention I became familiar with scientists and activists (groups that overlap to some extent) claiming “we can’t afford not to act.” Unfortunately, those claims were being made by people with no economic training, and no ability to conduct a meaningful benefit-cost analysis. As I have seen the claims that Cato affiliated pundits don’t know the science, I am inevitably reminded that the great majority of climate scientists are equally ignorant of economics and policy analysis. We have–the last I knew–an important policy issue whose successful resolution required the knowledge of multiple fields, with few people who were literate across those fields, or willing to carefully listen, or–often–even willing to acknowledge that the other fields might have relevance.
So, does something need to be done right now? Maybe, but it’s not going to be, so what’s the backup plan? And is that plan going to have a better benefit-cost ratio than adaptation? Because we can adapt, without any doubt. The question is whether or not we should make that a major part of our policy response to AGW. And the answer to that is not based on morality, but economics.
* And while I don’t want to get into the particular battle, I will say that in my considered opinion as someone who understands both the scientific process and the policy process, many scientists have behaved more politically than scientifically. They may not–well, certainly have not–behaved with the blunt dishonesty of many of their opponents, but from the beginning there has been a very non-objective vilification of anyone who doesn’t agree, a bit of selective data selection, and the like. I don’t really care if people object to that characterization–the whole issue has become so politicized that it’s damned near impossible to engage in civil and objective discussion of anyone or anything related to it anymore, which is a shame. It’s a testament to the scientific method that it has worked despite the ill-behavior on both sides. Part of what annoys me is the extent to which some folk act as though the “pro-AGW” scientists can do no wrong. Scientists are human, too, even climatologists and physicists. Praise the scientific method, by all means, but get over the starry-eyed hero worship of supposedly god like scientists who unlike mortal men can do no wrong, and who are opposed not by other fallible humans but by the evil minions of Satan. If you don’t think that applies to you, whoever you are, I won’t argue. If you think it doesn’t apply to anyone, I think you’re being willfully blind.
** I emphasize “in general.” That doesn’t equal a commitment to any and every possible policy to shift us away from coal. Finding a way to internalize the negative costs of coal would be ideal. Phasing out coal over the next five years would be idiotic. And of course there are many possible other policies ranging the gamut from supportable to laughable.