This post is a reflection on the current mess of the climate debate. One thing I am certain of is that, regardless of what verdict gets handed down in the Mann versus Steyn case, this debate isn’t going anywhere constructive as long as the basic dynamics of this debate stay as they are. I am particularly moved to write this given that such a logjam is going on in my comments section.
To summarize, when it comes to climate change, the left is right one the science and wrong on the politics, and the right is wrong on the science and right on the politics.
Since Mark Steyn’s in the news here, I will illustrate what I mean with a pair of quotations from him:
From about 1:10
Wrong on the science…
If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes. If you don’t like the weather, cross the street. Everyone seemed to understand that the weather changes. […] February the Seventh in New Hampshire, it might be fifty-eight degrees, or it might be forty below. A hundred degree range of temperature is normal. We have a one degree rise in temperature over the twentieth century [and everyone panics]
First of all, Steyn is here confusing degrees Farenheit with degrees Celsius/Kelvin, as are used by all scientists. But more to the point – Steyn is confusing weather and climate, and, unfortunately, that is not quite the way climate works.
Allow me to mention the Permian-Triassic extinction. A meteorite impact caused the Siberian traps exploding – 2,000,000 square kilometres of lava. That raised global temperatures from somewhere between 1.5-4.5 C. That in turn cause the release of methane hydrates, which kicked the temperature up again, by about the same, and ended killing ninety percent of all life on earth.
Now no one thinks we’re heading to that sort of disaster – I repeat, it involved two million square kilometres of lava – but things could still get pretty nasty. And I would really not like to find out the hard way I was wrong about that.
Here is a reasonable review of the science of global warming. I say reasonable, because it does the classic alarmist thing of mixing up the real trouble, as outlined by the IPCC with the most out there speculations. Case in point:
If all the glacial ice caps melted completely (as they have several times before during past greenhouse episodes in the geologic past), sea level would rise by 65 m (215 feet)! The entire Mississippi Valley would flood, so you could dock your boat in Cairo, Illinois. Such a sea level rise would drown nearly every coastal region under hundreds of feet of water, and inundate New York City, London and Paris. All that would remain would be the tall landmarks, such as the Empire State Building, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower. You could tie your boats to these pinnacles, but the rest of these drowned cities would be deep under water.
Yes, if. In actual fact, the IPCC suggests a rise of about 33 centimetres. Worse still, it includes a lot of speculation about the motives of deniers, of a particularly odious kind.
Nonetheless, it is good summary of much of the science at the moment.
Finally, since the slowing of global warming has been much in the news recently, here is an explanation of what is going on. It appears that much of the temperature rise goes in a stepwise way, and that during the steps, the oceans absorb much of the excess heat.
…right on the politics
Governments that are incapable of—to pluck at random—enforcing their southern border, reducing waiting times for routine operations to below two years, or doing something about the nightly ritual of car-torching “youths,” are nevertheless taken seriously when they claim to be able to change the very heavens—if only they can tax and regulate us enough.
That’s a good summary of what is really going on here. The science of global warming is a complex thing; by a rough estimation, you need a minimum of seven years study (undergraduate and PhD) to make any sort of contribution, and a long course of study is needed to have any sort of proper understanding of the science.
However, no such effort is needed to understand the endless failures and scandals that surround this. One can take the Solyndra fiasco in the United States, the failures of things like wind power, and so forth. There is a distinct impression, by no means unsupported, that government initiatives in this will lead to nothing whatsoever except cronyism and failure. Indeed, as Bjorn Lomborg has repeatedly shown, carbon cuts right now will do effectively nada when it comes to tackling this problem
Parenthesis: I have written before about the absolutely disgraceful treatment of Lomborg by many types, including Michael Mann. The general attitude has been to just throw anything, anything at all, and hope some of it sticks. Hence Lomborg is routinely called a denialist, when he has always accepted that global warming is real and happening. I have checked out claims against Lomborg and found them to be completely bogus – despite being made by a former writer for Science magazine, in the pages of Time. As to the reaction to The Skeptical Environmentalist, I really cannot improve on Michael Crichton:
The scientific community responded in a way that can only be described as disgraceful. In professional literature, it was complained he had no standing because he was not an earth scientist. His publisher, Cambridge University Press, was attacked with cries that the editor should be fired, and that all right-thinking scientists should shun the press. The past president of the AAAS wondered aloud how Cambridge could have ever “published a book that so clearly could never have passed peer review.” (But of course the manuscript did pass peer review by three earth scientists on both sides of the Atlantic, and all recommended publication.) But what are scientists doing attacking a press? Is this the new McCarthyism—coming from scientists?
Worst of all was the behavior of the Scientific American, which seemed intent on proving the post-modernist point that it was all about power, not facts. The Scientific American attacked Lomborg for eleven pages, yet only came up with nine factual errors despite their assertion that the book was “rife with careless mistakes.” It was a poor display featuring vicious ad hominem attacks, including comparing him to a Holocust denier. The issue was captioned: “Science defends itself against the Skeptical Environmentalist.” Really. Science has to defend itself? Is this what we have come to?
You do not have to accept, as Crichton did, the McKitrick criticisms of the hockey stick to get his point. It is not irrational for members of the public, when they see this sort of thing, to start getting suspicious about a stitch up.
Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand institute, once expressed roughly the following sentiments being asked about this: I’m not a scientist, and I can’t say about man made global warming in general. But as regards the idea of global warming as a massive, end-of-the-world thing, I don’t believe it. And here’s why: in the eighties and nineties we had a huge scare about overpopulation. But now we’re all having to deal with shrinking populations. We had a panic about the ozone layer, but that’s gone away too. And before that there was a panic about global cooling.
To which I’d add even earlier panics about things like eugenics (yes, I’m going there and you will see why).
I just want to stress that you can full accept the IPCC’s take on things and still understand this line of reasoning as rational. And incidentally, the doomsday scenarios he is talking about, the stuff peddled by Al Gore, is not supported by the scientific mainstream.
This would be bad enough. But this brings us to the next section, namely vested interests.
If there is is one line of argument I have grown to despise in this debate it is that deniers are driven by ‘vested interests’ in the coal and oil industries. Now, I may be wrong about this, but I think that not a single person making these accusations generates their own power by solar or wind, avoids all plastics, refuses to own a car or use any transportation that relies on fossil fuel power – and so on.
Fact: we all have vested interests in the fossil fuels business.
Now, who exactly it is who will bear the brunt of these increased taxes and increased fuel costs? The brunt will invariably be felt by the poor and the working class.
Nick Cohen, an honourable left wing comrade, made the following point:
Arguments about climate change, however, are not at all like arguments about abortion or creationism. Hard-headed people can see that their bills will rise and maybe their jobs go too. You must expect them to fight back hard.
This is why Al Gore’s mansion is such a sticking point. There is a real sense, not at all unjustified, that green regulations will work out fine for the upper crust and be a grinding misery to the lower orders.
Now, if this is true of the poor in the first world, how much worse are the policies, potentially, for the world’s poorest?
The answer is far, far worse. Higher taxes and fuel costs can mean the difference between escaping poverty or being trapped in it in the first world. They can mean life or death in the developing world.
I said I brought up eugenics for a reason, and I did. The record of the Green movement in what it has foisted onto the developing world has been worse than a disgrace. Their opposition to GM managed to kill eight million children in east asia alone. Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth openly boast about blocking hydroelectric dams, to say nothing of coal, oil and gas power stations. Lots of people are going to be immiserated and just plain die from this sort of wicked nonsense.
Phillip Stott, another honourable man of the left, summarised it well:
There is an environmental problem and it is called two billion people in poverty.
This is why I loathe the imputation of motive used all the damn time by people like Michael Mann. Yes, “climate science is being opposed by people funded by the Koch brothers and sinister billionaires” just sounds so much sexier, doesn’t it, than “climate science is being opposed by working class people who want to keep their jobs and internationalists who do not want to see the lives of the poorest on earth made worse still.”
Why global warming makes free markets a must
The greens might still respond: “All of that may be true, but we still need the massive power of the state, or we’re all dead. Even if it enforces a class system, even if it oppresses the poor, we have to move away from or at least heavily regulate capitalism, because it’s the only way. ”
Indeed, as I seem to recall people like Lovelock and Hansen are talking about getting rid of democracy ‘temporarily’ in order to deal with climate change.
To those who think that just unleashing the awesome power of the state is all that’s needed to fix this problem, could I ask you to take a look at the following? The pollution left behind by the last anti-democratic, anti-capitalist movement dwarfs anything seen in the capitalist nations.
When James Hansen says that “Chinese leadership is necessary to save the planet” he seems to forget what the levels of pollution in China are.
‘Oh’, some might still say, ‘Communist countries are polluted because they didn’t care about the environment. They only cared about raising industrial output, eliminating poverty…’
Yes, and we know how well they did that.
I wish this was more of a strawman, yet this is the way the mainstream does argue. Lovelock is not a fringe figure.
A more sober argument comes from the Non-Libertarian FAQ, by Scott Alexander. He is one of the people I have seen who at least tries to honestly engage the opponents argument. Here he is why the coordination problem, aka the tragedy of commons, means big government is justified in certain circumstances:
Consider the process of trying to stop global warming. If everyone believes in global warming and wants to stop it, it’s still not in any one person’s self-interest to be more environmentally conscious. After all, that would make a major impact on her quality of life, but a negligible difference to overall worldwide temperatures. If everyone acts only in their self-interest, then no one will act against global warming, even though stopping global warming is in everyone’s self-interest. However, everyone would support the institution of a government that uses force to make everyone more environmentally conscious.
Notice how well this explains reality. The government of every major country has publicly declared that they think solving global warming is a high priority, but every time they meet in Kyoto or Copenhagen or Bangkok for one of their big conferences, the developed countries would rather the developing countries shoulder the burden, the developing countries would rather the developed countries do the hard work, and so nothing ever gets done.
Notice that, in describing why we need big government to solve global warming, he also explains why the worlds biggest governments are absolutely incapable of doing so.
Will the UN ever pass any sort of resolution cutting carbon emissions that sticks? Look at the following – it’s a list of genocides since 1945, all of them on the UN’s watch, and all of them in direct violation of the singe most important tenet the UN is supposed to uphold.
So, the UN cannot prevent savages with machetes from trampling all over its most sacred values, but it will enforce carbon cuts on China and India.
Incidentally, this does not hold true on smaller areas occurring within the bounds of a well run state – Alexander gives the example of pollution of a lake from which multiple fisheries draw their livelihood. I have to mention that Ayn Rand did specify that, in such a situation, regulation was necessary, as long as it is under rational and objective law.
So – big government doesn’t work. Bigger government doesn’t work either. And international government absolutely doesn’t work.
That brings me to why tackling global warming requires capitalism. The first thing to stress about this is that so much of what is projected is projected to take place in the year 2100. For someone in 1914 to start arguing about policies that should make the year 2000 safe would have been nuts. For someone in 2014 to start fretting about the year 2100 is even worse, given the exponential rate of technological growth.
But that technological growth depends on industrial development, which in turn is based on capitalism. Capitalism is the only proven path for nations out of poverty and into wealth. In every case it has been tried, freer markets raise the living standards compared to those of non-free markets. Compare Hong Kong under the British with China under Mao. Compare North and South Korea. Compare former East and West Germany, even East and West Berlin.
Wealth gives us options. First of all, whatever is happening to the climate, it will be much better faced by people drawing first world wages than developing world wages. Wealth is and always has been the great emancipator.
More importantly, it is within the freedom allowed by capitalism that there is the real possibility for research and development of new technologies in energy production, and charitable endeavours such as climate engineering and carbon capture. Richard Branson is currently sponsoring a major project to find an efficient and affordable way to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Human individuals, working under their own steam, can do great things and need no Great Coordinator.
An anti-capitalist approach can only serve to at best infuriate and drive away support for this issue, and at worst, destroy the very possibility of us ever sorting this problem.
It’s for this reason that I think that those genuinely concerned with global warming have to get right with the politics and people like Mark Steyn have to get right with the science.
It is why I think global warming is the ultimate argument for capitalism.
Mark Steyn has sweetly linked and comment on this. However, I am puzzled by his comment:
As evidence of both propositions, he cites me, and no lefties at all.
If you read back, I think you see that I mention Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Hansen, Lovelock and, oh yes, Michael Mann. I’ve also written about this subject before, with more extensive quoting. But does anyone seriously think that it is hard to find left wingers who a) accept global warming’s reality and b) support massive government programs to support it?
But, whatever [carbon caps] do for the polar ice caps, they massively expand government, and advance the power and prestige of the likes of Michael Mann. And, if it turns out they’re wrong, do you seriously think they’d surrender all that? So I would say it’s more important to be right on the politics than on the science, which will take care of itself, and would be healthier if restored to a normal branch of objective inquiry from its present politically sexed-up fever swamp.
I wrote this post to explain why I can understand why a person thinks that way. But what Steyn doesn’t seem to understand that there is no effective way to oppose the lunatic politics without getting straight with the science. It leaves too many people thinking “If he’s so determinedly wrong on the science, he is probably wrong on the politics too”. Conversely, the single most effective critic of environmentalism has been Bjorn Lomborg, precisely because he does get the science straight.