Saturday, May 31, 2008

Politics, Science and Climate Change

Next week, congress begins debating the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. The goal of this legislation is to drastically reduce U.S. emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere because of its purported effect on global climate.

I have been intensively studying global warming for over a year – reading up on the science, politics and economics of this issue. Acutely aware of my biases, I have made a concerted effort to review multiple points of view, matching point and counterpoint on many aspects of the debate. There are excellent websites by leading climatologists which explain and analyze a variety of topics. In regards to the science, there seems to be well-intentioned, honest proponents with a wide spectrum of views.

What has become clear to me, however, is that too much of the science is hopelessly tangled with politics. The strongest proponents of anthropogenic, catastrophic, CO2-induced climate change (now there’s a mouthful!) are also the strongest proponents for government-imposed plans which reduce and ration energy use. The Lieberman –Warner bill is one of those plans.

The questions surrounding climate change involve both science and politics. Although these disciplines both require the use of facts and logic, the set of facts and the flow of arguments appropriate to each are not identical. These two aspects of the problem must be separated out in order to adequately analyze the quality of evidence presented and the logic of their conclusions.

I can see four main questions to be addressed, each with its own set of debatable data and arguments:

1) Is the global temperature rising?
2) Is there a measurable anthropogenic effect on global climate over and above natural variance?
3) Will we be worse off in a warmer world?
4) What is the best way for humans to respond to a change in climate?

An affirmative answer to questions 1 and 2 does not automatically lead to an affirmative answer in question 3. And, regardless of how you answer the first two questions, the fourth is completely unrelated!

The first two questions are appropriately addressed through scientific study, with all the attendant guides as to what constitutes adequate evidence for drawing conclusions about cause and effect. Questions 3 and 4, however, take us away from matters of the physical sciences into the realm of values and politics: What constitutes a better world? And, who gets to decide?

Regardless of whether you think the economy should be directed by the government or left to free individuals, it is intellectually dishonest to use climate science to push a political agenda. If what is desired is to use government force to prevent humans from using natural resources for their own purposes, that case needs to be made straight up. The facts of climate change, whatever they truly are, do not mandate a specific political action.

From my understanding of what conditions lead to improved human well-being, even if anthropogenic climate change is occurring, the best response is not forced reduction of energy expenditure. For a multitude of reasons, I see the measures proposed by the Lieberman-Warner bill as disastrous.

Life requires energy. Prosperity requires lots of energy. Our ability to respond to the challenges of nature, including those which humans cause themselves, are greatly enhanced by increasing our access to usable resources. As devastating as Katrina was to New Orleans, the loss of life and property there pales in comparison to the effects of the tsunamis and earthquakes in Asia. A significant contribution to the difference was the degree of material wealth available to the victims at the time of the disasters.

Changes in climate can be dealt with by means of adaptation and/or active mitigation. Our ability to respond to changes is enhanced by greater use of energy in order to further develop and exploit natural resources. To reduce energy and block resource development is to enshrine poverty. And that is a separate issue from whether or not the world is getting warmer.

Whether or not you agree with my conclusions, I think the discussions will be much more fruitful if we can keep the politics out of the science, and vise versa.

5 comments:

Sue said...

Bravo! A concise, well thought out case for keeping science and politics separate.

My only question is this: what if climate change is bad enough that it threatens the ecosystems we depend upon for survival (crops, water...etc.)? Is there a mitigation or response that can help us there? Or ought we to try to avoid the catastrophe before it happens?

Beth said...

When you ask, "should we try to avoid the catastrophe before it happens," who gets to decide whether the catastrophe is going to happen? Who gets to decide what the solution will be? All actions have trade-offs and side effects. Who gets to choose the priorities? By what means do you enforce them and by what justification?

Long-term planning is key for human survival. But whose plans based on whose assessment of the facts? This is why I see the real crux of the issue as political and not scientific. Whatever the facts about climate, we need to define the fundamental rules for how individuals should interact. Are there any situations so dire and catastrophic that it justifies the initiation of force by some against others? And what are the consequences of permitting the initiation of force into human interactions? To impose government-mandated limits on CO2 is to interfere with the private best-judgments of individuals now for an uncertain future.

In regards to the science, I haven’t seen anything which convinces me there is enough evidence to of sufficient certainty to justify the hampering of growth and prosperity. But what if the science did unequivocally support the concerns of the alarmists? That still wouldn’t change the need to discuss the political aspects.

There is no problem if those who are convinced of pending catastrophe wish to change their individual behavior. The problem arises when they want to force a change in the behavior of others. When and whether to use force is not a scientific question, yet many of the advocates of government action on the issue of climate change act as if it is. That is the point I am trying to make. Politicians need to focus on the political issues and leave the science to the scientists.

Beth said...

Posting for my dad:

I read it, wanted to send your blog the attached but don't know how to navigate a blog. Never tried before. Anyway it looks interesting. I'll suggest it to others like cousin Chet Furguson.

I think the attached article is interesting. Love, Dad

What is Going on in the World

Anonymous said...

Who gets to decide whether a catastrophe is going to happen? Who gets to describe what the solution will be? One can imagine a similar discussion taking place outside Mrs. O'Leary's barn, just before Chicago burned to the ground.

"...interfere with the private best-judgments of individuals..."? That is a naive statement that implies that the individuals are rational and that they have the collective best interests in mind, not just their best self interest. Of course the conservative mantra is self interest, and that is supposed to lead to what is best. A locally optimized solution is not necessarily THE optimal solution, even if the players are seeking it.

Heck, Cheney formulated the 1% solution which called for attacking any country for whom a 1% case could be made that they may have weapons of mass destruction. If there is some probability that Sue's concerns may come to fruition, and it is known that if we don't act soon we will pass a point of no return, it seems we should act.

For simplicity there are two possible outcomes: the models are right or they are wrong: catastrophe or no problem. We can act or not act. So if catastrophe/act acceptable. Catastrophe/not act unacceptable.
No problem/act acceptable
No problem/not act acceptable.

The two scenarios to focus on are the second and third. We will regret the second outcome as disaster ensues. The third outcome will cost us a few bucks and give us cleaner air; where's the horrible downside?

The concern of individual rights is understandable, but 'we the people' have the right to protect ourselves from the deleterious effects of individuals' actions, including those of whole industries. We have laws about drugs,alcohol, prostitution, and gambling and those won't affect the future of the human race, we just don't like them.

But climate change doesn't even matter for CO2 capping to be a good idea. The Constitution entrusts the Federal government with the task of providing for the common good. To that end we provide tax credits to encourage development of industries that we deem beneficial to society for various reasons ranging from economic to defense. Capping CO2 is just a bounty on an industry we deem deleterious. And it's deleterious for economic, not environmental reasons.

We have 3% of the world's oil reserves and we account for 25% of the world's consumption. We do have coal and natural gas, but they have limited supplies, as well. Long term what our society might want to do is to encourage development of alternative fuels. One way to do that is to raise the cost of fossil fuel use (a negative incentive). Another is with positive incentives for alternative energy production and use.

Now, why would we want to enter into a treaty like Kyoto? The answer comes from private industry. Private industry sometimes uses administrative law or regulations to confound its competitors. A treaty like Kyoto would put us on equal footing with the likes of Japan and Europe while we begin moving to alternative fuels. And this is something that is more important to us, on average, than other countries because we consume an inordinate amount of fossil fuel. So, while we have important reasons for changing the basis of our economy, we could encourage that change without putting ourselves at a disadvantage relative to the other industrialized countries.

Moving away from fossil fuels won't necessarily hamper growth and prosperity any more than moving away from horse and buggy to the automobile did. Cases of destructive technology appear throughout history, even in the arena of energy. According to Tim Harford in "The Undercover Economist" a cap and trade system for sulfur dioxide ended up with allowances selling for far less that was anticipated by industry whining and complaining about how much it would cost to retrofit smoke stacks to scrub the sulfur dioxide. As it turned out, it was really cheap to retrofit and the allowance for SO2 pollution went begging. So, worries about hampering growth may just be a smoke screen. And the scrubber industry would be a growth industry.

The last paragraph in Beth's 5/31 posting describes a case of tyranny of the minority. There will always be those who don't understand the science and are not convinced of the anthropogenic contribution to climate change. Should they be allowed to keep spewing greenhouse gasses because it is their individual best judgment that they can make a lot of money doing doing so?

Finally, having politicians focus on political issues and leave the science to scientists is ludicrous. At some point the politicians have to rely on the scientists so they can make policy. And until such time as there is nobody reciting the conservative mantra "seek your self interest and let the invisible hand work out the optimal solution" we will need policy.

Beth said...

Dear anonymous,

Thank you for your comments. It is helpful to have you express your points of disagreement. It is important to try and understand just where the arguments split so we of differing points of view do not just stand isolated and talk past one another.
You raise so many points that I can not address them all in a reply comment. I have printed out your comments and will do my best to understand the essence of your arguments. Then over time, I will try to tackle what I see as the most important ones. You seem to express many of the ideas which separate my thinking from others around me, and it will be helpful to try and hone in on just why.
I hope you are able to see that underneath the disagreements is a mutual search for the best way to live together, in peace, prosperity and justice. In order to have a fruitful dialogue, we need to be clear on exactly how we define justice, and what we see as the requirements for peace and prosperity. I will work on this for future posts.

To address one specific point here:

Your simplification of the climate change problem, I think, is an over-simplification in that it ignores the harmful consequences of the actions being proposed as “solutions” to changing climate. The harms to individual rights (the protection of which I view as an essential requirement for peace, justice and prosperity) will have tremendous long and short-term consequences. I don't like arguing on a purely pragmatic basis, as it can too quickly distract one from the fact that the moral is the practical, and the moral is the fundamental central to human interrelations. That said, I believe that solutions which sanction the initiation of force will create a much larger catastrophe for life on earth than any change in climate.

Some of the key points of departure that I am able to spot at first reading are: what constitutes justice; the existence (or not) of a “collective interest” separate from the sum the interests of individuals; the interpretation of “the common good,” or as it is expressed in our Constitution, the General Welfare; just what entails a proper stance on “protecting ourselves from the deleterious effects” of the actions of others, which includes defining the proper limits of government policy and government action.

I think the mistake that people make in regards to my beliefs is to conclude that defending individual rights and self-interest means to not care about others. I care tremendously. And because I care, I view that honoring the rights and interests of each individual equally, consistently, without any contradiction or double standard, is the only way that we can recognize and preserve the sanctity of each and every individual life. That means ruthlessly excluding the initiation of force from the realm of acceptable human interactions. Obtain a man’s consent, or leave him alone. All other standards are a variation of might makes right.