Re: Reply to Jim Manzi


Thanks for your reply. I think that your directness and clarity have helped to isolate the key point of difference between us.

In response to my question – “Put yourself in the position of a senior government leader tasked with making real decisions that affect the lives of millions. What would you do if faced with a matter of technical disagreement on such a quantitative-prediction question among experts?” – you say this:

I’ll tell you what I would do. I would say that, given our finite capabilities and the shortness of life, AGW may not be a problem at all, and, if it is a problem, it is not urgent enough to obsess over.

In my view, you have assumed away the crucial question. How do you know that “it is not urgent enough to obsess over”?

Earlier in the post you said of the global warming debate that you “haven’t taken the time to study it”. Later in the post you say that “If the issue is truly important enough, the experts will sort that out themselves”. But unless you want to do your own armchair climate science, which I think would be a real mistake, the practical questions become who we identify as the experts, and what process do we require for them to “sort it out”.

When it comes to specific technical questions, the experts that I identify are those who have spent years studying the relevant topic areas at recognized universities and research centers, have published peer-reviewed technical articles, and can point to specific scientific results. The narrow process that I support for “sorting it out” is the scientific method, requiring replicated research, peer-review, falsification testing of claims and so forth. The broader process that sits around this must include some NRC-like entity, as I described in my prior post, that has leading scientific experts from other fields to do another layer of review to minimize groupthink and self-dealing. This method, like all others, is imperfect and takes time to work, but is superior to any practical alternative, and has worked out pretty well for America and the Western world across many, many such questions for a long time.

But has this process somehow been hijacked in the case of global warming in the service of a statist agenda?

Let me start to address this by going back to the extended version of how you characterize your preferred policy on global warming:

I would say that, given our finite capabilities and the shortness of life, AGW may not be a problem at all, and, if it is a problem, it is not urgent enough to obsess over. Not if I am a senior government leader of a country trillions of dollars in debt who is also tasked with making real decisions about unsustainable entitlement programs, the high likelihood that states will soon default, 10 percent unemployment, crippling new taxes and inflation on the horizon, a global war against jihadists whose mass-murder attacks — and their catastrophic costs — are impossible to predict, the imminence of game-changing nuclear capability in a revolutionary jihadist state that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map and whose motto is “Death to America,” aggression from other hostile nations, a judiciary that is steadily eroding popular self-government, and a host of other actually pressing problems.

Here is what I said in a post at The Corner this week (echoing what I have written many times in many places):

In the face of massive uncertainty, hedging your bets and keeping your options open is almost always the right strategy. Money and technology are the raw materials for options to deal with physical dangers. A healthy society is constantly scanning the horizon for threats and developing contingency plans to meet them, but the loss of economic and technological development that would be required to eliminate all theorized climate change risk (or all risk from genetic and computational technologies or, for that matter, all risk from killer asteroids) would cripple our ability to deal with virtually every other foreseeable and unforeseeable risk, not to mention our ability to lead productive and interesting lives in the meantime.

We can be confident that humanity will face many difficulties in the upcoming century, as it has in every century. We just don’t know which ones they will be. This implies that the correct grand strategy for meeting them is to maximize total technical capabilities in the context of a market-oriented economy that can integrate highly unstructured information, and, most importantly, to maintain a democratic political culture that can face facts and respond to threats as they develop.

How could I end up with a point of view that shares with yours at least the perspective that in comparison to other dangers AGW does not merit the priority it is given by activists, when I’m so scathing about those who dispute all of the establishment science around global warming? I would put the following in all caps if it didn’t look so crazy: Because the actual science does not support the policies that you oppose. And I don’t mean the “real science” as opposed to the “fake consensus”. I mean that you could take every technical assertion made in the current U.N. IPCC Assessment as scientifically true, and you still couldn’t rationally justify cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, EPA mandates or anything like that. The expected damages from global warming are less than the expected costs of the proposed solutions. This is the central point of the vast bulk of the hundreds of thousands of words I have written about global warming.

If we end up opposing many of the same policies, why, then, don’t I just quiet down? There are two ways to answer that.

The first is that we all have our jobs to do. The job of a writer is to do his best to write things that he believes to be correct. This has been my motivation (as far as it is possible to know my own mind) in writing what I have on the topic. One implication of trying to reason forward from facts to conclusions in this specific case is that the current scientific evidence about the level of climate change threat does justify some actions: primarily, in my view, investing in “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” geo-engineering technologies, so that we have options available to us in the unlikely event that climate change turns out to be much worse than currently anticipated. Another is that if future scientific evidence of a more severe threat from global warming comes to light, then one should respond to that information rationally by changing policy preferences, and not view this as some kind of philosophical defeat.

The second answer is the more tactical. Though this has not been my motivation, it is my view that by attacking the scientific process, conservatives have needlessly disadvantaged themselves in achieving their desired policy outcomes. First, it has prevented conservatives from rolling the ball downhill from widely-accepted scientific findings to the policy conclusion that the costs of emissions mitigation don’t justify the benefits – which would put climate policy advocates in the position of arguing that the science is wrong, or that it is suddenly changing, or that we ought to do give up trillions of dollars for what is in effect a massive foreign aid program, or whatever. And second, it takes away what seems to me to be a position in reaction to proposals for new carbon taxes or cap-and-trade that normal voters would see as natural and believable coming from a Republican / conservative politician: Problem exists; solution costs too much.

[Cross-posted at The Corner]