Apparently I’m a bit late to the latest academic kerfluffle: Superfreakanomics‘ curious decision to wade into the global warming debate on the Neanderthal side.
Well, not exactly Neanderthal. More incoherent.
Brad DeLong destroys the chapter here – read it, it’s rare that one polite academic gets medieval on another well-regarded academic’s work – and, since advance copies have largely been pulled from the web for copyright issues, it may take some time for me to see the original in its proper context.
The political divisions of global warming amaze me. If the issue arose tomorrow, I would think it even odds that the Republicans would line up against it and the Democrats would be trying to justify it – how did opposing pollution, which after all destroys something that exists, become liberal? Mao’s Red Guards were being liberal when they destroyed the Olds. Teddy Roosevelt was being conservative when he carved out sections of the country to preserve from development.
On some level, it is more cultural than political – the folks who worry about climate change because they need to find something to criticize about our current lifestyles, the folks who insist it is not happening because they do not want to admit the consequences of our current lifestyles.
The problem is, only one side is actually looking at an issue. Virtually the entire scientific community is on board with the idea that the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions has done something to the environment. This shouldn’t be too outlandish – we managed to agree that CFCs were punching a hole in the ozone layer, you’d think that at least created the principle that man can affect the atmosphere.
Furthermore, the opponents of doing something about climate change tend to find themselves in a pretty tight box:
- The earth is not warming;
- The earth is warming but not for human causes;
- A bit of warming is no big deal and has happened often in geologic time;
- If the earth is warming because of greenhouse gases, doing something about it will be too difficult.
The last one tends to be the fall-back position, despite the fact that it is actually the weakest. The others could be factually true – they likely are not, but it is theoretically possible – while if it is the case that greenhouse gases are having the effect scientists believe, the sacrifice of not emitting them is comically small. To say otherwise is a bit like a smoker lamenting the loss of the taste in the face of cancer; we will need to stop polluting sooner or later. And let’s take the extreme case – if there were an asteroid hurtling toward earth and it would only stop if we all wore Birkinstocks and pushed our cars into the ocean, I trust we would do so. We are not going to have another planet; we need to make the best of this one.
That’s why I find the geoengineering argument so absurd. Set aside, if you can, the comedy of imagining that we would build a giant smokestack or orbit some sun-blocking mirror. If there were remotely enough will to do so, we wouldn’t need to – we simply wouldn’t pollute in the first place. The fact that we find ourselves unable to give up the simplicity and convenience of gasoline-fired automobiles and coal-fired power plants shows that we do not have a sense of urgency. So why, if we cannot tweak CAFE standards few people care about and fewer still would notice if changed, would we build something so massive that it would cause catastrophic injury if it fell over?
Suppose we imposed a massive carbon tax. Massive enough to change people’s behavior. Massive enough that the SUV went the way of the tail fin. Massive enough that coal power plants were mothballed and family electrical bills increased. Suppose then that we discovered, many years from now, that we were all wrong; global warming is about as scary as Y2K, nothing to be alarmed about, all clear. So what?
All that would have happened would be an increased tax for however many years it took to change behavior. The money wouldn’t vanish, it would go to the government, where it would either replace other taxes or go to fund additional services. Hardly the end of the world, especially since one of its beneficial side-effects would be reduced consumption of oil, which sticks it to the Middle East.
Meanwhile, if the converse takes place – if we do nothing, and it turns out that we divert the Gulf Stream or otherwise wreak havoc on our oceans – it really is the end of the world as we know it. The humans on the earth today – our individual physical bundles of genes and the social structures we have developed – are customized to the particular climate that has prevailed for the past few thousand years, and to a large extent the past couple hundred. Warp that environment and we are massively reshuffling the deck, which at the very least does not help the group currently holding the aces.