Friday, December 18, 2009

A Change in the Climate

If news reports (or at least their relaying of American blame-shifting leaks) are to be believed, we have Red China to thank for killing the Copenhagen climate conference. One wonders what it says about the U.S. as the defender of individual liberty that we had to rely on them (and India and Brazil too, in all likelihood) for slaying this dragon.

The conventional wisdom about climate change goes something like this:
“We should be required to limit our CO2 emissions because we know we will otherwise have disastrous effects on the climate.”

But really, much of that sentence could benefit from a little deconstruction – could be challenged if people were willing to apply the critical thinking that, as a university professor, I keep hearing we want citizens to have in abundance:
to limit: Take for granted, for now, that CO2 emissions are going to raise global temperatures significantly. It does not follow that, at the margin, the best response is to decrease emissions. If carbon emissions generate a lot of benefit – ambulances taking heart attack victims to hospitals consuming vast amounts of electric power, supercooled or supercleaned factories making the mysterious parts that power the explosion of information known as the internet, the airplanes carrying not just people with self-important business like a climate conference to go to, but their own missions of importance (visiting dear relatives, interviewing for a rewarding job, whatever). Civilization is good, and we don’t want to destroy it,

Perhaps it would be better to accommodate climate change – to move human settlement back from the shore, to build flood-control systems, etc. All these things may require us to sacrifice less than radical limits on emissions.

be required: By whom? By the experts and functionaries, naturellement. The scientific revolution originally took place for its own sake, for the joy of discovery. And technology was created to serve human welfare, often in the pursuit of profit. But the modern bureaucratic state has harnessed corrupted science in the service, not of problems in a metaphysically certain sense, but problems that government has identified. Because of the influence of special-interest groups and bureaucratic self-interest in controlling individual autonomy, the latter is something different.

The creation of a massive bureaucratic entity to control carbon emissions, even if nominally cloaked in pro-choice outerwear like carbon credits, means that a huge sphere of previously relatively autonomous activity –transportation, manufacturing, communication, and even family decisions themselves – will come under the control of administrators, who will decide with the force of law how much we can live. (British writers have suggested annual individual carbon or air-travel quotas, and even child ceilings.) There is absolutely no reason informed by long historical experience to suggest this power will be used wisely. (Consider that the EPA, answering to no one, has already announced it will regulate CO2 if Congress does not, something no honestly free society would tolerate.)

The writer Thomas Friedman said on television the other day that his “daughters’ future” depends on getting CO2 under control. But by destroying impossible-to-predict innovations and by extending bureaucratic control over a huge chunk of the economy, a CO2 treaty is a far more sinister threat to his offspring. Such problems as occur might frequently be better handled by decentralized or even voluntary responses than through a massive central plan.

we know: What do we know? That CO2 would increase the climate other things equal is apparently just basic chemistry, but that is a weak statement. The single most noteworthy thing about climate “science” is the amount of scientific misconduct found within it. The faked “hockey stick,” the number of non-climatologists on the IPCC, and the unwillingness of climatologists to share their data, especially with unwashed non-credentialed members of the public, is frankly disgraceful; nothing any scientist who behaves that way says should be taken seriously.

I now keep meticulous records of all the backward-looking statistical modeling I do in my research. When graduate students or professors have asked in the past for my data and programming, I have given it to them with no ifs, ands or buts. The recent Climategate scandal is not the first incidence of climatologists massaging their data and hiding their work from the public. Now that the East Anglia data is coming out, people are finding interesting things. I am in no position to comment on their utility, but analyses of climate “science” by two people whose only official credentials are free men with an interest in the outcome seem to have found interesting things, and their work can be found here and here. Do not look for them in refereed journals near you, but remember them when you are asked to do your duty as a citizen subject to consensual government.

we will otherwise have disastrous effects: The climate is to a first approximation as complex as, say, the US macroeconomy, and our ability to model the latter is primitive. A critical criterion for a good statistical model is its ability not just to explain the past but to predict the future. Can climatology do this? Does it have a record of accurately predicting average temperatures in various places since the first IPCC report? I don’t know, but I suspect not. Climate models, it seems, are primitive, and relying on them to make irreversible changes in the relation between government and citizen, both in scope and in distance from those governed (multinational organizations instead of local governments) is madness.

The climate is also subject to other effects than what we do; if nature overwhelms CO2 emissions, making major sacrifices is pointless. (Indeed, warming since the Ice Age is in a sense responsible for civilization itself.) Will CO2 emissions cause helpful effects in some places? Will agricultural productivity go up? Will shipping become cheaper? Against this effect must of course be weighed the negative effects, but as noted above, many can perhaps be mitigated at low cost. Only the possible swamping of island nations by water raises the most serious moral questions.

Thus, if I were a teacher of critical thinking and ethics, I would hope my students would eventually realize that a better sentence looks something like this:

“Current evidence suggests that human activity is having some effects on the climate. Perhaps action should be taken in response.”

That is more like where we are scientifically and in terms of ethically reasoning our way through it. Starting from there would get us to a much better answer,


Post a Comment

<< Home