In Conversation: Some Thoughts on Global Warming

I started discussing global warming with an eagerly-moderate friend of mine on Facebook, and it made good blog fodder.  I’ve summarized his posts as questions, because I’ve learned that some people don’t like having their exact words reposted on some public blog (even without attribution), but my replies are essentially verbatim.  I will try to keep my interlocutor from sounding like poor Glaucon in my retelling.

Q: What do you think of this HuffPo feature on global warming by Twin Cities weatherman Paul Douglas?

Paul Douglas was the only local weatherman to predict the Halloween Blizzard of ’91, so I will always pay him attention. Never knew he was Republican before; cool.  Still, like nearly everyone talking about global warming, he is long on diagnosis and short on prescriptions less costly than the disease.

Isn’t the real problem our failure to innovate?  While China is cornering the solar market, America is failing to use its political capital as the leader of the free world — and our laxity could cost us the planet!

See, that’s the thing every says, “Let’s innovate! Just like the moon shot!” We’ve been innovating, with not insignificant portions of GDP and government largesse lavished upon the green sector, for twenty years — twice as long as the Apollo program — relying on much stronger technologies. It hasn’t really changed anything. Solar is still absurdly expensive. Wind is still absurdly inefficient. Nuclear is still absurdly berated. Our energy needs are only continuing to grow. At this point, the marginal economic benefit of each new PV cell (because of its environmental friendliness) still seems to be far less than the marginal economic cost of manufacturing it (because they are friggin’ expensive), despite heavy subsidy. Mr. Douglas just bought himself a hybrid car, but, even if we eliminated ALL carbon emissions from American automotive vehicles tomorrow (switching all cars and trucks to electric instantly at no cost), that would still leave about 85% of U.S. carbon emissions in place. Switch planes and boats to electric, too, and we make a somewhat larger dent.  (The EIA has a good annual breakdown of energy consumption by sector and type.) Plus, we’re not even the biggest carbon emitter anymore! The “big” solutions, like Cap’n Trade, end up functioning as gigantic opportunities for big-business political rent-seeking with little real reduction in greenhouse gases and a lot of opportunities to ruin economies.

I’m afraid I’m on the verge of sounding ranty. Not trying to be. All I mean to say is that, if we accept Mr. Douglas’s premise that the Earth is warming — which I do — and that anthropogenic sources are a primary contributing factor — which I am willing to entertain in the interest of risk management — nobody has proposed any serious solutions to the problem except the people who propose reducing the Earth’s population by three billion people within ten years (by emigration in some cases and extermination in others). Most of what we see, whether in Washington or in Europe, are hand-wringing measures intended to make people feel good because they’re “doing something” and “at least it’s a first step” while the only practical effect is to maximize the control of central governments over their economies and populations. China, the most centralized government on Earth, has demonstrated exactly zero interest in curbing its emissions, though it is happy to sell us expensive toys to make us feel like we are.

If global warming is coming — and it sure seems to be — it seems sensible to me to get ready for it, not try to stop it, which appears to be only a theoretical possibility, if that. Let’s figure out desalination to deal with the water problem, build irrigation infrastructure where it’s going to be necessary, strengthen the supply lines necessary to deal with famine in unexpected parts of the world, and continue to focus on maximizing crop yields per acre.

Can we really doubt the anthropomorphic origins of climate change, given that 98% of scientists agree with it, and the other 2% are on Big Oil’s payroll?

The clear and ongoing pattern of silencing dissent and outright excommunicating climate scientists who step “out of line” is a deep pathology in the field. It was most clearly seen in the Climategate incident, but I can think of half a dozen other examples. Those who support the “consensus” behave with frequent hypocrisy. (If it’s a warm winter, the “consensus,” Douglas included, will ALWAYS say “This is more evidence of global warming.” If it’s a cold winter, like last year, the “consensus” will ALWAYS say, “Simple weather of the moment can never be treated as evidence of global warming!” I can pull New York Times editorials demonstrating the point if you like.) They adopt, moreover, a practice of outright policy advocacy entirely inappropriate to their discipline.  This should make any good scientist blush.

This adds weight to my own research, carried out in high school, which concluded that large sectors of the environmental science “discipline” are not doing science at all, but repeating thirty-year-old special-interest propaganda from the likes of Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood without study or even subtlety. Moreover, while you are free to accuse “the 2%” of being on Big Oil’s payroll, who do you think funds “the 98%”, and why do you believe that vested interests and shoddy science end at the lip of the government trough?

Finally, this is a discipline that has gone from a “consensus” favoring global cooling thirty years ago to global warming fifteen years ago to global “weirding” today. Climate scientists always have a consensus, but it’s a consensus whose parameters change very quickly. The business of predicting the future is big business — especially for them — but it is even less reliable than predicting the weather tomorrow.

In short, the “climate science” discipline, already a singularly difficult and error-prone field, has deeply compromised itself in a variety of ways. They did not need to do this, but they did, and they cannot be treated with the same deference I give to, say, chemists. I have no more reason to trust them, at this point, than I do the “scientific” studies of old showing that cigarette smoking is perfectly safe. (The same goes for studies both pro and con anthropogenic global warming.)

So I am willing to entertain the AGW hypothesis, but I am literally incapable of drawing even reasonably strong conclusions.

This is a side point, as you observed, but a fairly important one. I can’t get mad at my fellow Republicans for disagreeing with me about whether there’s sufficient evidence that global warming is happening at all; the discipline has failed in its duty to impartial, objective observation. It’s not some mad anti-science putsch like the ongoing attempt on the Left wing to ignore the absolutely indisputable, observed, and repeatable fact that human life begins at conception. It’s just basic distrust of a group of people who have shown themselves to be as imperfect as the rest of us.

Isn’t China just waiting for the U.S. to take a leadership role in cutting emissions, since they feel they have a right to pollute as much as we did when we were a developing power, because it’s “their turn”?  Isn’t the same true for India?  Doesn’t the world still take its cues from the U.S.A.’s policy?

I have seen no evidence whatsoever that China is “waiting for U.S. leadership” on the climate question. China has long made it clear that it could not care less about U.S. global leadership. On the contrary, China has acted, with laser-focus, in order to further its own interests in the region in the world — and has done so with no regard for the international community or its own people’s human rights. They brazenly prop up the regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran. They oppress Tibet whenever its gets upstarty. It continues to expand its own military, launch its own space program, and pollute like crazy. The European Union’s efforts to reduce emissions inspired no motion in Chinese politics, and, indeed, we are beginning to see even the EU’s extremely limited efforts unravel. Your second sentence is more accurate: China and India do see us as major long-time greenhouse gas emitters, and they do seem to see this as “their turn.” If we start to ramp down our emissions, that isn’t going to make it any less “their turn,” nor is there any reason to believe that, in thirty years when it is no longer “their turn,” they are going to generously ramp down their emissions to comply with whatever international standards may by then be in place. Neither does any nation make economic decisions based on how well they are doing relative to other countries; they make economic decisions based on domestic economic conditions. India is not going to say in 2050, “Oh, well, our unemployment rate is way better than the U.S.’s, so I guess we can afford to relax and late a few hundred million more Indians go out of work.” The foreign policy consensus on this question among liberals — and I say this as a foreign policy idealist who likes to think the best of foreign powers — is fantasy of purest spun gold.

Isn’t wind becoming more efficient?  And aren’t the profits being reaped by overseas companies that make the components?  Couldn’t we use those jobs here?  Can’t we say the same for solar and nuclear?  Have you heard of fast-neutrino plants?

Wind is becoming more efficient. So is solar. At the rate we’re going, according to the more alarmist projections, they should both be economically viable just after New York City slips into the Atlantic Ocean.

You mention innovation, but hasn’t our effort been pretty half-hearted?  I heard that Big Oil receive tens of billions in subsidies from Uncle Sam.  If we just started funding research at that level, wouldn’t our problems be solved and technology quickly advance?  Aren’t we incentivizing non-renewable energy development over sensible clean energy research?

The largest NASA budget in history (as a percentage of GDP) was the budget in 1966 ($5.9 billion). It was 0.7% of total U.S. GDP. Most of the ’60s saw budgets somewhat smaller than that. Last year, the federal government *alone* spent 0.2% of GDP ($30 billion) on clean energy research and subsidy — and 0.2% of GDP buys you a lot more now than it did in 1966 — and that doesn’t count state-level subsidies, which are also widespread. Our research spending parallels research around the world, especially in Europe, over twice the length of the Apollo program. If we take the Apollo program as a guideline, the spigots on this problem are already open very wide indeed. The needle is not moving any faster. The research solution, to invert a Chestertonism, has not been found difficult and not tried; it has been tried and found wanting.

The big oil “subsidies” are not subsidies in any generally accepted definition of the term. The U.S. government does not hand Big Oil a check every year. No, these “subsidies” are only such in the left-wing twilight world of “tax subsidies” (an oxymoron), where your money belongs to the State unless the State generously decides to allow you to keep some of it. For instance: the U.S. government considered royalty payments to foreign powers to be deductible income for tax purposes under certain circumstances. This rule is applied to every company, equally. Since that includes oil companies, this constitutes, to Democrats, a “billion dollar giveaway!” Somehow it isn’t a billion dollar giveaway when that same deduction is used by small import/export businesses – no, the Democrats want to specifically target Big Oil with new taxes. And this is supposedly eliminating a subsidy. Or consider the fact that, in 2004, the government imposed a new tax rate on domestic manufacturers, which included a special 6% income deduction clause. Oil companies benefit from this tax break when they are also domestic manufacturers – this is apparently a grand Republican conspiracy to shovel money into oil executives’ pockets. In fact, all the Republicans are doing is refusing to take extra money out of their pockets for having committed the crime of being unpopular. You can read all about it on the sites favoring these very measures, like this one.

Notably, even if we were to go insane and count equally-treated and fairly arrived-at untaxed private profits as “subsidies,” they’re not very large. The bill I linked above would have raised another $20 billion from oil companies in new taxes, but… that’s actually less than we spent in 2011 on energy R&D. The incentives clearly favor renewable energy. It just hasn’t made any difference, because renewable energy is a niche technology. It is not leaving that niche to become a carbon replacement until and unless “peak oil” hits – or until the price of carbon-based energy is artificially inflated until it is triple or quadruple what it is today. Since we already spend nearly 10% of GDP on energy, this alone would cost the U.S. more money per year than total federal spending and borrowing COMBINED, twice over. The only thing that cost the U.S. more economic activity was the Great Depression, and it eventually ended – this wouldn’t. (The Great Recession, by contrast, cost only about 6% of GDP at its worst.) This energy disaster may happen someday. But I hope to God it doesn’t.

I don’t mean to be too much of an alarmist. Nor am I against wind, solar, and nuclear – I do want to see research continue into them and other new power sources, and there is already a rightful place for them on the current grid – especially nuclear. But there is no plan on offer to reduce energy emissions far enough to avert, or even significantly reduce, what the IPCC projects to be the anthropogenic impacts on climate change. None. Zero. The Republicans are denying the problema and the Democrats are doing political theater with it, with their proposed solutions conveniently doing more to achieve secondary political ends than to actually reduce emissions. At this point, denial seems more likely to lead to better policy outcomes.

Now, yes, we will eventually get our atmospheric CO2e back below 350 ppm. Global population is going to level off around mid-century and hopefully will remain stable. Efficiency is going to continue to grow insofar as it is actually economically beneficial (which is determined by markets, not central planners), and it is only going to keep getting more profitable… but slowly. Research should continue, and the U.S. government is pretty good at funding research. Eventually, one day, solar energy is going to be cheaper than oil drilling, and people are going to switch over, gradually, as it makes sense for them. And that’s great. But all this is going to happen well after the watersheds of global warming are in the past. Attempts to accelerate this will fail unless governments are willing to do things much more damaging (and/or evil) than suffering through a new age of warmer winters and better crop yields in Northern Europe.

Or so it seems to me. This is not my area of policy expertise, and I am always open to being corrected or introduced to new ideas.

Hold on.  Even though we spent a lot less on the space program in the ’60s, wasn’t a billion dollars worth a lot more back then?  Wasn’t a $5bil spend in 1960 more like a $50bil spend today?

Yep, $5bil would be, thanks to the magic of inflation, about $33bil today, so, if you’re looking at real value instead of percent national effort, we are annually putting almost as much value into greening things as we were in 1966 on lunar ventures.

Sure, environmental science has had a bad time for the past thirty or forty years, has barked up some pretty rotten theories, and today faces a healthy and serious skepticism on account of its past and present sins.  But doesn’t every scientific field go through a stage like this, as academic chemistry did a century ago?  Won’t EnviroSci outgrow its funk?

I do hope and believe that the practitioners within the EnvSci discipline will one day lift themselves out of the muck and start acting like scientists. Until then, though, they must be treated with considerable skepticism.

Isn’t the rapidly changing consensus within the climate science community a sign of health, not sickness?  Science moves quickly!  Hypotheses are abandoned!  What was certain is vanquished as falsehood!  Isn’t that the fun?  More importantly, isn’t that ultimately what keeps science healthy?

You’re quite correct that science changes quickly as experiments continue. This is exciting and a lot of fun, but it does mean that, with the science constantly changing, it is very unwise to build long-term policy based on relatively new science! Imagine if we’d done what Paul Ehrlich recommended when the population bomb reared its ugly head. By the time it was exposed as an error, we would have already done incalculable damage to our economy and our people. It is great that science changes — both for scientists and for the long-term store of human knowledge. But it is not great for politics, which rely on a stable, long-term set of facts in order to make decisions about the far future.

This isn’t a question.  Diplomats from India and China have told us, straight-up, that they will start cutting emissions if the U.S. takes the lead.  A professor we both know (at least by reputation) has first-hand knowledge of this.

Anything a diplomat says is, at best, an earnestly hoped-for expression of what the ambassador has been told is the national will — and, at worst, a bald-faced lie. I make a special exception for Chinese diplomats, because the People’s Republic is a totalitarian state that does not hesitate to lie, steal, and kill its way to its policy objectives. The fact that they’ve rejected even the modest limits on carbon emissions Europe suggests shows that they are about as serious about this problem as we are — except that our nation’s government will not collapse in revolt and revolution if our economy slows or we stop building more and more impressive public works with which to propagandize the people. I don’t believe anyone actually believes Chinese protestations on this point — although, if our mutual friend, the professor, genuinely believes they’ll do it (and doesn’t just hope it), she is far more expert than I. (India, being a democracy, is a little more flexible… but faces geopolitical pressure of its own that would seem to outweigh the risks of a modest rise in sea level, at least on a back-of-the-envelope analysis.)

There the conversation ended amicably.

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