Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Climate Change Debate Engaged

The debate is engaged. New York Times readers, having finished baying at the moon over Bret Stephens's views on climate change, are peppering the columnist and the paper with their questions. Good! These readers have every right to ask questions, even if those questions do not reveal very much deep thinking. It’s what happens when you live in a bubble and have never exchanged views in the marketplace of ideas.

And Stephens has responded to some of his detractors in the paper, or online. Again, good. It’s what debate is supposed to be.

The first detractor, named Len Sherman, feels that the ideological rigidity of climate change true believers is matched by Donald Trump’s disregard for facts, even by Trump’s failure to get his facts right. One recalls Barack Obama’s pronouncement that America had 58 states. The people who are trashing Trump’s obvious errors thought that Obama was right about the number of America’s states.

But, I digress.

Sherman is also discomfited by the fact that evangelical Christians dismiss science. While there must be some religious people who reject science, how many of today’s radical left believe in evolution? How many of them believe in Darwin’s theory about the difference between the sexes? How many of them believe that gender identity is a scientific fact? Or do they believe that it’s all a matter of belief? Since most of them do, they should shut up about who does or does not accept science.

But, I digress again.

Anyway, Sherman declares that, based on the scientific evidence that he has seen—one might wonder whether he has seen it all or whether he is qualified to evaluate it—the need for what he calls “righteous behavior” is a no-brainer. I assume that he means that people without a brain invoke the authority of science to justify what they consider to be “righteous behavior.” Does one not smell a whiff of piety?

Stephens responds by invoking an economic principle. We possess limited resources— this is true—and therefore we must judge where it would be best to invest those resources. It’s perfectly rational and even reasonable:

The human race is forced to confront multiple environmental threats with limited economic resources. We have to make hard choices about how we assess the threats and how we allocate the resources — knowing all the time that information is imperfect and economic and environmental conditions are subject to change over time. Climate change is one of those threats, but not the only one: think of malnutrition, “ordinary” pollution, land mismanagement and so on. We need a serious debate not only about how to allocate those resources, but also about whether we have the tools right now to make a switch to less carbon-intensive energy sources in a way that doesn’t impose its own set of grave and unanticipated economic and environmental problems.

In other words, if we accept the apocalyptic vision of pending climate doom, we should allocate all of our resources toward building windmills and installing solar panels. And  yet, what will this potential misallocation of resources cost those who inhabit the planet today?

Responding to the next questioner, Susan Fitzwater, Stephens notes that different counties have tried different ways to address global climate change, with not-so-encouraging results.

There were, for example, ethanol subsidies:

A decade ago we were plowing money into ethanol subsidies as one response to climate change. But that turned out to be not just environmentally destructive but was also arguably responsible for the spike in food prices that soon followed, as farmers turned away from cultivating corn for human consumption to cultivating it for ethanol production.

And then the British encouraged people to shift to diesel fuel, the better to diminish London’s pollution. How did that work out?

Stephens responds:

Another example: The New York Times recently reported on the massive increase in smog over London. The cause? Let me quote from the story:

“The British government provided financial incentives to encourage a shift to diesel engines because laboratory tests suggested that would cut harmful emissions and combat climate change. Yet, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average five times as much emissions in real-world driving conditions as in the tests, according to a British Department for Transport study.”

Next, Jason questions Stephens’s comparison of election polling with climate modeling. Since Stephens compared projections of the state of the climate with the prophetic powers of polling, Jason is asking a good question.

One suspects that Stephens was using a rhetorical ploy. But, anyway, here he uses the question to ask about the accuracy of climate modeling, especially those that pretend to predict the future to a scientific certainty:

The climate is an intensely complex system. Seemingly tiny differences in terms of inputs can make dramatic differences in terms of results. We should be humble about what we can know a year into the future, never mind a century, and we should be refining our assumptions continuously. That calls for more investment in science, not less.

I would add the obvious point, often noted her, drawn from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, to the effect that there is no such thing as a scientific fact about the future. Stephens argues a slightly different point, namely, that the systems that produce the climate are so complex, what makes you think that your calculations have included all the elements? After all, we miscalculated on ethanol and diesel. Why do you think that we have not done the same with the computer modeling?

Then Nils asks what harm would be done if we simply make the world a better place, regardless of the truth of the science. Of course, nothing about science tells us what constitutes better or worse. The question does expose one of the unstated presuppositions in the current environmental movement: namely the wish to repeal the Industrial Revolution. Because nothing has created as much pollution as those giant engines and their “dark Satanic Mills.”

To which one must respond that there has been good and bad with the Industrial Revolution. True enough, cars and steam engines have created pollution. But the IR has also greatly enhanced the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people and has nearly doubled the human lifespan. While we are trashing the IR let’s not forget modern sanitation and medicine, to say nothing of heating and air conditioning. Let's not forget that bacteria and viruses are part of the pristine beauty of the natural world. The same is true of mosquitoes and feral hogs.

Stephens has a slightly different take:

Interesting question, because it helps explain why so many people are drawn to the subject of climate change. To wit, it’s not just a matter of pure science. It’s also about morality, or at least a particular version of it. That’s why I’ve always thought there’s a quasi-religious dimension at work in climate-change advocacy, which not only describes the science but offers a catalog of prescribed (or proscribed) behaviors, and which tends to demonize people who aren’t wholly in tune with their assumptions.

He continues:

After all, even if you’ve diagnosed the cancer correctly doesn’t mean you can’t harm the patient with the wrong prescription. I’m urging sensible readers to be thoughtful about this, to look before we leap, to be aware that “do something!” may be satisfying as a moral reaction to a given problem but rarely makes for smart policy.

Stephens is obviously correct to point out the moralizing and moralistic basis behind the climate change crusade.

Finally, Elizabeth Berg explains that we should have engaged in the battle sooner. If we had, she opines, it would now be far less costly. Obviously, Stephens responded to this question when he pointed out the error of our ways with ethanol subsidies and diesel fuel. 

To Berg he offers the example of Angela Merkel’s environmentalist effort to shut down the nation’s nuclear power plants and to replace them with vastly more expensive windmills and solar panels:

For yet another example of what I mean, consider Germany’s “energy revolution,” an incredibly ambitious bid by Angela Merkel’s government to wean itself from fossil fuels. An in-depth report in Der Spiegel (admittedly from 2013) notes some of the effects:

“German consumers already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe. But because the government is failing to get the costs of its new energy policy under control, rising prices are already on the horizon. Electricity is becoming a luxury good in Germany, and one of the country’s most important future-oriented projects is acutely at risk.”

Suffice it to say that this dialogue shows the good that comes from engaging in debate with someone who disagrees with them. For many Times readers this must have been the first time that they had their most cherished beliefs challenged cogently. It is a very good thing.


trigger warning said...

Stephens is wasting his time...

"You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."
--- Johnathan Swift

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Great post, Stuart! Spot on.

I wonder if a lot of these Lefties recognize that the Industrial Revolution made abortion, high income taxes and mass illegal migration possible. Perhaps then they would be more balanced in their assessment of its impact.

Secondly, you raise an excellent point about nuclear power. To me, this is the single-most useful test question for the SJW/Climate Crusader: Are you for nuclear power generation? Typically, the response is an instant, disgusted, loud "NO!" with the person distressed at the very thought being posed. This is when they show themselves to be romantic, primitive Luddites. Checkmate.

The Climate Change crusaders are dreamers and complainers without a solution. It's not even science fiction, it's a fairy tale mindset where we live happily ever after. There are no trade-offs in Wonderland...

And if you really want to have a laugh, tell your friends Rush Limbaugh has five times more listeners than the New York Times has readers.

Malcolm said...

Excellent presentation if you want the facts


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: One recalls Barack Obama’s pronouncement that America had 58 states. The people who are trashing Trump’s obvious errors thought that Obama was right about the number of America’s states. But, I digress.

Actually he said he had visited "fifty...pause...seven" states, one more to go, except Alaska and Hawaii, so his error would imply 60 total states.

I've done enough public speaking myself to find myself flustered over facts I otherwise know well. I'm actually pretty careful with my fact, so when I competed in the Science Olympiad in high school, I'd never press the buzzer as fast as others because I wanted to think things through than be mocked for blurting out things that are clearly wrong.

And don't forget Obama talking about his "Muslim faith", although I almost wonder if that was trolling the paranoid minds on the right.

For me the "sin" isn't making a factual mistake, but doubling down on a mistake when challenged. I never heard Obama insist there are more than 50 states when questioned.

I've also not heard Trump's explanation for why his flags only have 39 states.

And Trump is the president who as a candidate retweeted that 81% of white murders are by blacks and his excuse in this garbage to Bill O'Reilly “Am I gonna check every statistic?” Trump said, “I get millions and millions of people @realDonaldTrump by the way… all it was a retweet.”

Talk about passing the buck, but I digress as well...

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: ...how many of today’s radical left believe in evolution? How many of them believe in Darwin’s theory about the difference between the sexes? How many of them believe that gender identity is a scientific fact? Or do they believe that it’s all a matter of belief? Since most of them do, they should shut up about who does or does not accept science. But, I digress again.

What exactly does evolution have to do with uncertainty over gender identity?

What does "Darwin's theory" say about the differences between the sexes?

I do recall statistical evidence that men have a higher chance of being gay if they have an older brother. Here's an article, but of course sexual orientation also is not the same as "gender identity".

"Darwin's theory" if it says anything says that nature is multifaceted, and the same characteristic can have multiple "purposes", and can create new ones that didn't exist in ancestors.

Social theory on the other hand, is more interested in rigid categories, and putting people into boxes, and saying my inner experience is no different than yours if we're the same gender, so if you don't fit in my box, it is your job to conform, whatever the cost to your self-identity. And as "social animals" its a sensible thing to conform in public, while subcultures will always exist among those who self-identity in ways that don't fit the wider culture.

So "shut up" is a fair response if you really mean "Go back to your freakshow subculture because we reject you."

The main confusion of the left I think is they presume the "freaks" must be accepted by everyone and legally protected from "bad words", while the more sensible libertarians (or wiccans) say "An it harm none, do what ye will."

I'm willing to say the "social box" theory is the one that is rejecting the "truth of Darwinism", unless we're talking about "Social Darwinism" which is something else entirely.

But I digress as well...

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: I would add the obvious point, often noted her, drawn from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, to the effect that there is no such thing as a scientific fact about the future. Stephens argues a slightly different point, namely, that the systems that produce the climate are so complex, what makes you think that your calculations have included all the elements?

Apparently we now need to define what a "scientific fact" is. If science has to do what can be measured, and the future doesn't exist, then there can be no scientific facts about the future.

But obviously something is wrong in that assertion. We can launch spaceprobes to the planets and predict with precision where they'll be months and years into he future. We can do this because of "natural law". We know the effects of gravity, and the masses of the sun and planets, and so we can simulate with extremely good accuracy how to get a spaceprobe where we want it.

And to the second point, yes "climate science is complex", and at one level due to chaos, we can only predict weather patterns forward for maybe up to 2 weeks. So we'll never know if it'll rain on a certain day in 3 months. BUT we can make statistiscal arguments about historic rainfall and decide whether we should have an ourdoor wedding in July or September in a certain locale. So we can do "risk management" on complexity and make our best bets.

At times it does seem fair to accept we may not be able to have "climate science" as much as "climate philosophy." Philosophy means "love of wisdom" and wisdom is different than knowledge. Wisdom can act even when perfect knowledge is lacking.

Or one scientific fact we can consider about the future is "It takes more energy to remove CO2 from that atmosphere than existed in the fossil fuels we burned in the first place" So this suggest that if increased CO2 is not "harmless or beneficial" we have no way to "undo" what we've done. So wisdom prescribed caution.

If our ancestors had to survive without fossil fuels, and if our descendants will one day have to survive without fossil fuels, and our culture is now completely dependent upon fossil fuels to keep us all alive, and not killing each other in a fight for resources, then wisdom would say we should look into learning how to break this addiction sooner than later, before we're forced to, when diminishing returns stop giving us more energy next year as last year, or when its clear CO2 increases is causing irreversible harm to life as it has evolved over the last 100 million years.

So if "science" is not good enough to the task, why not use reason? Why do we have to have no limits on what we do, just in case our descendants find new technologies that save them just in the nick of time? Doesn't that sound imprudent?

And the dismal science of economics has its own answers. We can measure the vast majority of our carbon emissions, and therefore we can tax them, adding a carbon tax, even a revenue neutral carbon tax. And then we can allow the "free market" of alternatives to compete in a "lower carbon" future of our choice.

IAC says I hate fossil fuels, and that's not true. I'm dependent upon them, and I don't trust that dependence is prudent. Children don't hate their parents because they're dependent upon them. Children don't hate their parents for leaving them a sizable inheritance, but they might hate themselves when that inheritance is wasted, and they still don't know how to live honestly without that subsidy.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares, once again, this subject brings out your very best. Keep writing!

"What exactly does evolution have to do with uncertainty over gender identity?"

It's about Lefties claiming certainty about things they claim are uncertain. And then, when they don't like the way a conversation is going, they claim everything is uncertain anyway. That is, until you bring up something they're certain about, at which point they claim self-evident certainty about things that are not evident, and uncertainty goes out the window.

And that, sir, is certainly obnoxious.

And you do it regularly. Especially on the topics you are certain about, while reserving the right to claim uncertainty later. Like your endless fascination with "facts" that are certainly not facts, but opinions or politically-influenced quantitative claims or statistical or scientific claims. I find much uncertainty in them, which certainly must upset your sense of certainty. But your reactions are certainly not my responsibility.

Ares Olympus said...

IAC, I've never asked you to agree with me, although obviously you will object to the need or value of a carbon tax until the cows come home, and strangely we might actually get a methane tax on cow flatulence before we get agreement by people who need to waste lots of energy that CO2 is a problem.

On Stuart's new engagement, here's a rebuttal to Bret Stephens, no calling for silencing free speech, just the facts of risk.
In suggesting climate change hawks have a false sense of “certainty,” Stephens erred twice. First, he conflates risk, or the likelihood of a scenario happening, with the certainty of the prediction. Secondly, he mistakenly presumes that less-than-perfect certainty means a future event is unlikely or inconsequential.

By suggesting that scientists have a false sense of certainty about our future climate, Stephens implies that there might be no future warming at all. Is that possible?

The article does hint that insurance companies are also in the business of predicting the future, so if no one will insure your property at a rate you can afford for flood insurance, things like that are "market signals" that can change at least building decisions, but they could be wrong in either direction, and make a killing, or go bankrupt for promising too much for too little.

It is still surprising to me that the antismoking efforts were so successful, and many are still accept there's no certainty about lung cancer and smoking, and I see it is a critical mass thing of how many are affected.

So as long as a critical mass are dependent upon high carbon lifestyles, the inconvenient truth of self-interest will blind the majority of us that our choices are a problem.

Surely no preindustrialized country would imagine having horses tow around 4000lb carts to get around, but when we have cheap gasoline and 350 horsepower engines, we don't care that we're burning one-time resources that are not replaceable when they're gone.

My certainty isn't that the future is perfectly known. It is that we're wasteful and negligent to the predictable risks we take in our unnecessary dependencies.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares, why is a carbon tax necessary?

flynful said...

Trigger warning said,
"Stephens is wasting his time...

"You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."
--- Johnathan Swift"

I agree wholeheartedly with trigger warning but only in the context of a one-on-one argument. But, I also agree that this discussion in the NYT is a good thing.

So called "Progressives", in my experience, live in a dream world and invest emotion rather than rational thought, in the things they feel are important. The key to getting past that emotion is to plant an idea that might cause them to later (regrettable, mostly never but often much later) question the basis for that idea. In a one-on-one argument you can't get past the emotion so really can't persuade with rational thoughts versus beliefs. When confronted by an incontrovertible fact the Progressive overrides his/her cognitive dissonance (they can't process the fact so go on to something more comfortable in their belief system) by changing the subject (or, more recently, by attacking the other as a racist, homophobe, or whatever). What Stephens is doing is making the argument in an emotion free and very private and personal environment, in the pages of the NYT of all places, which might cause a reader or two to ponder what Stephens is saying and then ask a responding and rational question in his or her own mind. And, once that rational question is asked the foundations of that person's always emotional response to different ideas has been breached. That doesn't mean that rational thought is the immediate result, but that once someone starts to rationally question his or her own beliefs the process towards rational thinking has begun and is most likely irreversible. It just might take years.

In my view Stephens now has the appropriate forum in which to change minds. If he succeeds those new thinkers will probably drop the NYT and subscribe to the WSJ. I guess the NYT will have to fire him soon for undermining their readership base.

Ares Olympus said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said... Ares, why is a carbon tax necessary?

Because economists say some activities have externalities that we can't afford to pay for, and are making our descendants deal with, if we do nothing.

There is an individual expression for a carbon tax. Individuals can charge themselves a "tax" on their measurable carbon foot print, and then invest those collected funds into things that reduce your daily need for burning fossil fuels.

Green businesses also have experimented with "carbon offsets", things like funding the the planting of trees, although I think this is tricky. Since fossil fuels are CO2 extracted from the atmosphere from millions of years ago, burning them adds a net CO2 that didn't exist before we burned then. So a proper carbon offset has to not only extract CO2 from their (like trees do very slowly), but then harvest those trees before they die and putting them into a use that won't rot, which reverses the offset.

The main problem with a carbon tax is that it raises the cost of living of ordinary people, even if future shortages do the same thing eventually. But that's where the revenue-neutral approach works - if citizens receive back an average share of that tax, then people who consume less CO2 will pay less taxes, and people who consume more CO2 will pay more taxes.

If Al Gore wants to use 27 average households of electricity in his mansions, he can pay extra for that privilege.

The other aspect of a carbon tax is it can increase manufacturing costs in our country, while having the effect of encouraging businesses to relocate to "no carbon tax" countries. So this is where international cooperation is involved, and countries that don't have carbon taxes will find themselves with tariffs from countries who do have carbon taxes.

Anyway, back the the economics, theory says that rising energy costs for fossil fuels will make low-carbon alternatives more price competitive, and will encourage the development of technology that better utilizes the energy we do consume, what Amory Lovins calls "negawatts", designing things from the start that use less energy, and give us the same results from less.

Nuclear power ought to do well but only if we use economy of scale for a new generation of power plants that replace dirty coal plants, and get the approval process streamlined sufficiently so power companies don't have to fight 10 year legal battles for each new plant.

As long as coal electricity is cheap, people will stay asleep. If individuals and businesses know energy costs will be ratcheting up in the next decade as carbon taxes are phased in, they will become more thoughtful on the dangers of nuclear.

Natural gas is trickiest, being the cleanest carbon fuel, but also easy to waste with an unknown future supply. it is very cheap now due to fracking, cheap enough to flare even, which all can have other environmental effects. And NG is a limited resource, and NG fields deplete faster than oil, and we really don't know how many more decades we can keep producing what we need to heat our homes, much less create electricity.

And so that uncertainty tells me we should also be redesigning our homes to need less heating costs in the winter, and reduce our home's needs for electricity, or at least so we know how to need less in crisis periods.

The main problem with renewable energy solar/wind/hydro is less dependability, yet if we find ourselves in a world in 20 years without the ability to burn fossil fuels, irregular electricity supply can be "managed" by a necessity.

If we can find energy storage systems that can store our excesses, smooth out supply, our descendants can someday going back (to our current obliviousness) and not care since it's always there.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
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Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
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Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares, please don't tell me you are that naive.

The "carbon footprint" is a phony formula that came out of the belief that carbon emissions are bad. This comes from the belief that man-made climate change is real, that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, and that we're all going to die like they did on Krypton if we don't "Do something now!!!"

Moralizer Al Gore has a big carbon footprint, but wants yours to be smaller for the good of the planet -- this fragile spaceship Earth we all must travel on. If the consequences of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere are as dire as y'all claim they are, then having a high-consumption carbon lifestyle is a moral abomination! There's no amount of carbon offsets that can remedy these catastrophic consequences you claim are imminent. It would seem such high consumers should be killed, lest our children and grandchildren be immolated by a hot planet decades from now. This means your understanding of carbon "offsets" are really a comforting mathematical rationalization. This is Progressivism in action: rich Proglodytes can afford to continue the very lifestyles they condemn -- high carbon consumption behaviors that irreversibly destroy our planet. Yet the cattle must be mindful of their consumption. That makes absolutely no sense.

Petroleum products are inexpensive and flexible. The liberal fascination with "no automobiles" policy and an unhealthy fascination with public transportation is just more of it. The automobile is a fabulous invention. Most everybody wants one. If you don't like the smell of gasoline exhaust, join the club. But I don't like the smell of cow manure, either, but my garden beds love it.

We've all been hearing that "We're going to run out of oil in 10 years" since college dorm discussions. "Won't it be great when we don't need petroleum anymore?" Not necessarily. First question: what do I have to give up? Besides, petroleum is an organic, free-range, non-GMO product. What's terrible about that?

The "externalities" revenue from carbon taxes will never go toward renewable energies or energy storage. Politicians will take the money and put it to the best use possible for THEIR needs. The government is a terrible allocator of resources.

You say let's make energy expensive, but what will you do with all that money in taxes from the artificial inflation of the cost? You know best, Ares, always. So what are you and your ilk going to do with all that money you made off of the Climate Change lie? What happens when you've offset everything and lo, the Earth's temperature continues to do what it does?

We were told we had to do something by 2016, or New York would be underwater. People got scared, and they got angry with politicians to do something. Yet nothing has happened, and I wonder when people are going to get mad at politicians for needlessly scaring them. I'll tell you why: because it's politics, not science. Why not give the government more money? That's what coastal sophisticates already believe anyway.

Your condescending political philosophy feeds your lust for remedies to "climate science." It's not science, it's another narrative. Every organization is hungry for additional resources, and that's what the Leftists are doing here in architecting this fantastic lie. When the solution to a problem is a tax, doesn't that deserve skepticism?

You're getting duped by all these environmental frauds, and cannot acknowledge you childish attachments to them. Or perhaps you know it's all a lie, but a means to an end. You may want to re-examine those ends, but I'm quite sure you won't. Because this is yet another issue for you to show others how smart you are... using a hopelessly complex system called climate. You're more like a druid or astrologer... a keeper of the secret knowledge. Heads you win, tails we lose.

Ares Olympus said...

IAC: You say let's make energy expensive, but what will you do with all that money in taxes from the artificial inflation of the cost?

You don't read very well perhaps. I've repeatedly suggested a revenue-neutral carbon tax, whether that comes via payroll tax reduction, or tax credits or something else, there are lots of options.

IAC: When the solution to a problem is a tax, doesn't that deserve skepticism?

Economists don't call a tax a solution. They are a market stress that encourages innovating alternatives, and conservation if we're not yet smart enough to find alternatives.

Climate science is real and useful even if "climate solutions" are more about human behavior than science.

IAC: We were told we had to do something by 2016, or New York would be underwater.

No one said NT would be underwater by 2016, however given a 50-100 year lag on warming effects due to CO2. And it may yet be too late for New York for all I know.

Sea level rises are the weakest of effects, and they've been rising slowly since the end of the last glacial cycle some 10000 years ago. Apparently half of the rise is due to thermal expansion and half due to glacial melt. Thermal expansion is slow even if speeding up.

If the arctic ocean becomes ice-free in the summer time in the next 20 years, it will effect the weather in north America greatly, like the erratic movements of the arctic vortices, but it'll have no change on sea level.

Scientists can make predictions on antarctic glaciers moving faster, which could speed up seas level rise in decades, or by 2100, but far too slow to cause much fear. People will abandon low lands, insurance companies will refuse coverage.

Probably we should be more worried about refugees in the coming decades than flowing water.

Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is a defensive stance, with no downside for me. The less we burn, the more we have available in the future, and the less we need to fight wars to get it. And if we actually can figure out how to run civilization without burning 100 million year old stored sunlight, I might start considering humanity might be redeemable.

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