A few days ago I posted on the monumental silliness of Al Gore. The world is ending, he tells us. We must adopt policies that are certain to leave lots of people in poverty and that will impose significant costs on average people around the globe. It's tough medicine, he acknowledges, but we are talking about Armageddon here. It's an inconvenient truth.
But not inconvenient for him. He's rich and can buy carbon offsets. So, happily, he can keep the multiple mansions and private jets. He can continue to live a lifestyle of which his policies will deny the rest of us even a shadow.
Actually its even better than that because his company sells the offsets - so he's got vig on everyone's else's indulgences. Lucky thing for Al that he didn't become president.
Last night on the cable news, a series of environmental activists - a lawyer for the NRDC, a jamoke who runs some thing called the Global Warming Alliance and the insufferable Robert Kennedy, Jr. (a strong wind sure blew that acorn into the next forest) - tried to respond to this. They said that all of this business about how silly we are misses the point. So what if we are all hypocrites who don't have the courage of our convictions? We could still be right.
And that is true. But, for me, the global warming movement is sort of a gigantic bait and switch. Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton, in what must be a catch phrase mandated by Message Central, tells us that the "science is in." It is apparently so in that there is no need even to discuss what it says. Before he hopped on this Lear Jet, little RFK managed to suggest that disagreement with his version of that science is no less than treason.
Isn't announcing that the science is "in" a tad anti-scientific? We no longer debate the temperature at which water freezes, but this global warming stuff is a bit more complex. The science is not "in" as long as scientists continue to raise valid questions about it. But let's put that aside because, while scientific truth develops in the long run, we live in the short run and must make some judgments now.
The thing is that what the science "says" is far more ambiguous and contingent than Live Earth scholars such as Rosario Dawson, Madonna and even Roger Waters seem able to face. This is why I think one of the best things that I have read on global warming recently is a piece by Jim Manzi in the June 25, 2007 issue of National Review.
Everytime I sit down and read something that actually contains facts as opposed to assertions that the debate is over, there seems some to be some substantial room for doubt about human agency in global warming. But Manzi does not think so. He believes that it is very likely that human activities have warmed the planet. On that, he agrees, that the science is "in."
But, it turns out, the arriving science leaves the important questions unanswered:
The most important scientific debate is really about these feedback effects. Feedbacks are not merely details to be cleaned up in a picture that is fairly clear. The base impact of a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere with no feedback effects is on the order of 1°C, while the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus estimate of the impact of doubling CO2 is about 3°C. The feedback effects dominate the prediction. As we’ve seen, however, feedback effects run in both directions. Feedback could easily dampen the net impact so it ends up being less than 1°C. In fact, the raw relationship between temperature increases and CO2 over the past century supports that idea.
The science that Barbara Lawton and RFK, Jr. assure us is uncontroverted and dire doesn't tell us much. "Climate models generate useful projections for us to consider," Manzi writes,"but the reality is that nobody knows with meaningful precision how much warming we will experience under any emissions scenario. Global warming is a real risk, but its impact over the next century could plausibly range from negligible to severe."
What scientists can agree on bears little resemblance to the world according to Al. Manzi again:
Fortunately, no mainstream science makes any such prediction of impending disaster; worry about them amounts to no more than informed speculation. The current IPCC report is explicit about this when it says: “Abrupt climate changes, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, rapid loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet, or large-scale changes in ocean circulation systems, are not considered likely to occur in the 21st century, based on currently available model results.” That said, the same humility that leads us to a sensible skepticism about the ability of climate models to predict the temperature centuries into the future must also logically lead us to accept that some of these more extreme negative scenarios are not impossible. It is not a “scientific fact” that any of these things will occur; it is not even a quantifiable probability; but there is some currently unquantifiable but (crudely speaking) very low chance that one of these will happen.
The current IPCC consensus of a temperature increase of 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100 would, according to scholars at Yale, have a "zero to very mild" economic impact. The IPCC itself says that even a 4 degree increase would result in only a 1 to 5 percent reduction in global GDP. Not good, but not Doomsday either.
Manzi concedes that, just as we can't be sure that there will be no significant impact (perhaps even no further temperature increase), we can't be sure that the more dire predictions won't come true either. There has long been a school in the environmental movement that claims this is all the support we need for drastic changes in the way we live. This view is often called the Precautionary Principle.
Ironically, when this idea is applied to, say, the war on terror, good liberals who are faithful environmentalists see its flaws. Lots of them ran out to buy Ron Suskind's book criticizing what he saw as the Bush administration's tendency to take extreme actions in response to security risks of low probability. Perhaps not wanting to offend his green readership, Suskind called this, not the Precautionary Principle, but the One Percent Solution.
Manzi reminds us that this is no way to run things:
In the face of massive uncertainty on multiple fronts, the best strategy is almost always to hedge your bets and keep your options open. Wealth and technology are raw materials for options. The loss of economic and technological development that would be required to eliminate literally all theorized climate-change risk would cripple our ability to deal with virtually every other foreseeable and unforeseeable risk, not to mention our ability to lead productive and interesting lives in the meantime. The Precautionary Principle is a bottomless well of anxieties, but our resources are finite. It’s possible to buy so much flood insurance that you can’t afford fire insurance.
In responding to global warming then, there are reasons to reject the type of top-down command solutions (guess who gets to be in command?) that tell us (or, as appears more accurate, you) to take the medicine. We need to retain some perspective, to consider things like adaption (the world's climate has seen greater swings than this)and to be wary of solutions that would impoverish. There is a reason that rich countries are cleaner than developing ones. The latter can afford clean technology and infrastructure and, quite frankly, the luxury of worrying about the next century as opposed to the next meal.
This might actually leave some room for many of the things that the global warmiorers advocate. But it almost certainly would not include the moral equivalence of war approach favored by Gore.