Posted tagged ‘eco-conflict’

Does Climate Change Matter: Steven Postrel Edition

April 29, 2008

Last week I blogged at length (too much! sayeth the mythical average reader) about McCain’s gas tax holiday and the evil consequences for hopes to rein in carbon pollution/climate change.

In doing so I linked, approvingly, to Steven Postrel’s analysis of the relative policy and economic consequences of a carbon tax vs. a carbon cap-and-trade system to limit and/or roll back carbon emissions in the US. At the same time I snarked a couple of times (reasonably politely, I thought) about this bit of Postrel:

Let’s suppose you’ve been swept up in the recent frenzy and decided that it actually makes sense to apply coercive regulations to reduce human carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s further suppose that you’ve caught up to the 21st century and know that imposing specific technology standards on particular sources of emissions is a sign of policy incompetence: You know that market-ish mechanisms can do a much better job than technology standards of allocating clean-up tasks to the lowest-cost producers; you know that market-ish mechanisms provide incentives for private innovation in emissions control while technology standards stifle better ideas.

Congratulations! You are now about where the public policy debate has fallen these days — naive about the quality of the natural science involved but possessing a sound insight about the smartest way to do a foolish thing. (Italics added — TL)

The essence of my snark was that Postrel was out of his competence — and wrong — by suggesting that the science of carbon pollution and climate change was poor.

In the comments thread to the second of my provocations in this direction, Dr. Postrel responded with a courteous and thoughtful defense of his claim, along with a slightly more irascible re-response to another commenter (and old friend of mine) who took issue with some of what he said in his first micro-essay.

Postrel’s comments are worth reading, as they are clear, internally coherent, and provide as sound a brief precis of the arguments for the do-nothing approach as anything I’ve read.

And what makes them important, IMHO, is that they thus succinctly express several of the most significant errors of that approach.

So — as Werner Wolf fans may remember, Lets Go To The Videotape!

By way of adjusting the frame of his argument, Postrel begins his first comment with a slight but significant shift. He says that climate scientists’ “judgment about what can be done with their scholarship is very much in question. Not just at the level of prediction, but at the level of policy evaluation and control.”

Well that’s open to debate — and I’ll take a crack at that below. But note the tricky little sidestep there. In his own post on taxes v. cap and trade, he clearly indicts “the quality of the natural science.” Here, called to the mat on that, he says, in effect, no– not really — it’s just when climate scientists apply their knowledge to domains beyond the reach of their pretty little heads that we get into trouble.

OK — he didn’t say that; but the implication is clear, and its clearly not what he said in his initial post, so my snark still stands.

But so what? Rhetorical sleight of hand is always nice to expose, but Postrel goes on from this claim, to argue the implications of his assertion that climate scientists — along with those who believe what the vast majority of them are telling us — are foolish naifs, and it is here, I think that his more serious errors become apparent.

Postrel’s first argument in favor of doing nothing rests on what he calls thought experiments. (They aren’t really — in the shameless self promotion department, see my account of thought experiments in the hands of someone who knew how to create a hypothetical that actually penetrated to the heart of an issue.)

Postrel asks “if there were a provable natural trend toward cooling would anyone be arguing for increased CO2 emissions to balance and stabilize the climate? Answer: When pigs fly.”

There are several problems with this, and with the parallel straw man question on natural warming. First, the rhetoric: Postrel asserts, absent evidence beyond his own assessment of human nature/political process, that humans would not attempt to control nature to their own advantage. “Because I said so” (a loose translation of “when pigs fly”) is neither persuasive nor accurate in this case.

(By the way — Postrel took my old friend and trenchant blogger Lovable Liberal to task for an alleged confusion of the distinction between rhetoric and argument. I’d say the phrase “When pigs fly” settles the case in LL’s favor — though I’m happy to allow my friend to wield the blade of his Harvard philosophy degree to discipline Dr. Postrel on this matter in his own time and space.)

But beyond the fact that Postrel advances as argument a mere ex cathdra claim, the problem here is that he is clearly wrong on the facts. Human beings have routinely intervened in large ways and small to alter climate/environmental conditions to their benefit in the context of natural, cyclical change. See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature for some classic writing on the subject — but examples are legion, and stretch back at least to Sumerian attempts to irrigate their corner of the fertile crescent.

More broadly — and more to the larger issues with Postrel’s case — there is both a moral and a practical argument to be made that the “experiments” Postrel proposes are in fact arguments of either ignorance or bad faith.

Bad faith first: It seems reasonable to test the assumption behind the question. Postrel asserts by implication that reasonable observers should see no difference between a “natural” and an intentionally, consciously chosen act. Is that so? Ask yourself whether you feel or reason a difference between a natural process that alters ecological conditions and actions undertaken by humans now fully aware of the fact that their acts have consequences for people and ecosystems who/that derive no benefit from the original action.

I think that it is obvious that there is such a difference, and I think the recognition of that distinction is deeply ingrained in our law, customs, cultures, systems of belief and so on.

(For an example in the realm of both law and belief consider the Talmudic discussions of responsibility and compensation required when an ox causes damage depending on what knowledge the owner had of the propensity of his animal to cause injury.)

Hence my use of the term “straw man” for what Postrel would rather label more grandly a “thought experiment.” It fails to achieve that status both because, at least in Postrel’s hands, it becomes a question that assumes its answer (airborne pork and so on) — and because it rests on a false assumption of the equivalence of the question with the situation to be explored.

Now to the issue of ignorance. Why might it be a good idea to intervene now, when it would not have been, say 70,000 years ago, (when, we have just been informed, homo sapiens may have flirted with extinction brought on to poor adaptation to an undeniably natural climate change)?

Because, (more relentless self promotion alert) as I discussed here, before Jared Diamond and John McPhee did the same to much greater effect, the current anthropogenic climate change has one crucial difference from all the natural variation humans have endured throughout their evolutionary history.

That change?

We’ve built a whole lot of stuff in the way since the last Ice Age ended.

Over the last several hundred years we have constructed critical infrastructure on the assumption that the climate regime is going to stay more or less constant over time. We’ve done that all over the world, of course, and while there are some technological fixes available to the rich (see the Dutch engineering of their sub-sea level coastal fortifications), more broadly, we’ve got a lot of life, wealth and property invested in the notion that the ocean will stay more or less where it is.

And of course, it isn’t just coastlines we need to worry about. Global warming is not just an issue of sea level rise; it presents, as Postrel does accept, a much broader range of possible consequences.

Climate change affects rainfall, storm severity, longer term patterns of drought and damp and so on. Global agriculture on industrial scales are built on climate assumptions. Land use and distribution reflect generations of dispute and resolution on the question of access to climate resources and so on. Radical change in the climate regime — an expansion of drought areas, shift of rainfall patterns and so on — might not, as Postrel and others have argued, produce a net loss of ecosystem capacity world wide. But such shifts do devastate human constructions built on a set of beliefs about the climate that are no longer true.

Put this another way: Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. Rather, it was a natural event — category 3 or 4 hurricanes are going to hit in the western gulf with a certain frequency; that’s just the way that part of the system goes.

What made Katrina a human disaster was the fact that since the last major hurricane came that way, New Orleans in all its modern glory and inadequately engineered levees had grown up in the way. Take that and spread it all over the globe, and you have the reason why modern anthropogenic climate change is scarier than the Little Ice Age was. The broad argument we should do nothing because the climate has always varied fails to take into account this change from then to now.

This has gone on long enough. Just a couple more errors to pick at, and then I’ll stop, not having exhausted the problems with Dr. Postrel’s much more elegantly brief original comment.

His argument on the difficulty of agreeing on a temperature (“hubands and wives can’t agree on thermostat settings in their living rooms!”) is another straw man. The question is whether we should slow or reverse the forcing agent of climate change. The target, if any, is an atmospheric concentration of CO2, not a temperature. The straw man gets even more hay-like when you consider the issue is not even purely about hitting some admittedly at least partly arbitrary target: it is about at least slowing the pace of change to make possible what Postrel says he wants.

What’s that?

Adaptation to climate change.

Here, Postrel shows a glimmer of the real risks involved, the fact that so much of human built society depends on ecosystem assumptions that carbon pollution calls into question. But his call for engineered solutions to the effects of climate change, rather than approaches to alter the underlying driver of the shift another way of saying that rich nations, the source of most carbon pollution to date, will ride out whatever storms there may be while the poorer ones suffer.

That may be a depressingly realistic assessment of the likely outcome (particularly under the current administration) — but it’s ugly, and I suspect, poor policy as well.

Poor people rendered desperate move. Such motion causes conflict. Conflict is not always, but is often vastly more costly even for very distant, and seemingly uninvolved parties than resolving the causes of conflict before the shooting starts. I’m sure acute readers can think of other costs ecosystem change impose on the rich.

Postrel closes with the hope that we would look for other technological solutions to climate change besides simply reducing carbon emissions — mentioning a scheme to reduce the earth’s albedo (reflectivity) by injecting particles into the upper atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable here, but I read that as he being willing to experiment with the global ecosystem properties to ameliorate the consequences of another, larger, less controlled experiment the human species is currently conducting. I’m not against technological approaches to climate change, where appropriate but I can’t see why Postrel favors one experiment over another here. (I know — presumed cost — but his claim that changing the earth’s albedo is inevitably cheap seems to undervalue the risk involved in such a what-the-hell tech fix.)

I haven’t exhausted all I’d say about Postrel’s comment, but given that this response is already several times longer than his original thoughts, I’ll rumble to a halt here.

We do agree on one thing: creating policy that does the least harm with the greatest possibility of good is exceptionally difficult. But he has inferred from that difficulty that the principle of least harm thus leads us to no or minimal policy response to our ongoing, uncontrolled experiment with not only our own lives, but those of everyone and everything else on earth.

With all due respect, I think that this is, strictly speaking, nuts.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow,” 1569. (One of my favorite works of art and an iconic image from the Europe of the Little Ice Age). Source: Wikimedia Commons.