So was reading John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber writing about climate change, and something crystallized in my thinking a bit.
In one sense, the blogosphere has reached a near-universal consensus on climate change. Everyone who follows the issue at all closely agrees that there is no real debate. Instead, it’s generally agreed, we have a situation where (1) a large body of people devoted to serious scientific research is confronted by (2) pushers of silly Internet talking points who are ideologically motivated, financially driven or just plain delusional . The only disagreement is which group is which.
I’ll get to my own beliefs and prescriptions in a bit; what’s interesting to me is that Quiggin neatly sets out what makes me so uncomfortable with the state of the argument today. It’s the tone of the people who are pushing hard for Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).
In my somewhat misspent youth, I put myself in places where I often encountered stupidly aggressive people. Bars. And there’s an interesting point about aggressive people in bars; you should pay close attention to the ones who are loudly threatening to kick your ass – but you don’t need to be afraid of them. Because if they were serious, they would already be kicking your ass, not just telling you about it.
Two things put my environmental-regulation-loving, hybrid-driving, solar-panel powered self off from supporting AGW and the policies that fall out from it:
1. The bullying tone of the supporters of AGW. Look, if you’ve got the facts and the science, you don’t need to try and rhetorically drive people out of the debate. But if you don’t…
2. The fact that many (not all) of the supporters of AGW are people who also – for a variety of reasons good and bad – have issues with “the dominant paradigm” of Western industrial society. It’s kind of like the local Lothario discovering that nude hot oil massages are the key to preventing some kind of fatal disease.
As someone who knows something (certainly not everything) about physical sciences and complex systems, I can say with some certainty that there is no way in hell that the level of certainty in the data we have supports an absolute society-restructuring belief in AGW. We’re talking about something vastly more complex than markets, and yet with a smidgen of data and a few complex computer models we have a group of bright people assuring us that absolutely they know what’s going to happen next.
Note how well that worked out in the financial markets…
At the same time, it’s hard to argue that we are taking on some unknown risk – a risk that could be catastrophic – by dumping ever-increasing amounts of anything into the environment. So maybe it makes sense – a lot of sense – to do what we can as quickly as we can to minimize our byproducts.
The devil is in defining “what we can” and “as quickly as we can.” Some people – Quiggin certainly among them – don’t like industrial capitalism much for reasons of their own, and arguably see this – the deep regulation necessary to reverse our carbon impacts – as both good for its own sake and good because it will provide an opportunity to move society closer to the desired model.
I have a good friend who is a senior official in a national agency tasked with environmental management, and we’ve talked about this; how the same people who argued that resource constraints and population growth required that we remake society; then species protection; now climate change. The constant is the need to remake society and the issues are sellable justifications for why it should be done.
I’m not so interested in remaking society; but I do worry about the impacts of climate change.
My response on AGW is somewhat different than Quiggins, and more like the “on one hand, and on the other” that many AGW proponents criticize.
We have some data which is highly suggestive of an impact by human activity on climate. Even if we accept the existence of the impact, and its significance in changing a naturally-variable climate, its extent is hard to determine with the information we have. But in the worst reasonable cases, by the time we have enough data, it may be too late to act in any meaningful way.
So we should act.
Our inefficient dependence on oil and coal wastes finite, valuable resources, creates pollution, has significant geopolitical impacts, and possibly worsens out climate.
There are a variety of painless things we could do to be more efficient, and we should do them immediately.
There are a variety of things we can and should do to improve efficiency and security, like building a smarter electric grid and beginning to decentralize power production, which also have positive impacts on overall energy efficiency and our climate impacts. We should do them quickly.
And there are harder, more complex things we should do – from changing land use development patterns to adding nuclear power – and we should be looking hard at them with an eye to deciding on what we can do soon.
That seems like a set of positions it would be relatively easy to build a consensus on, and one that could lead to relatively quick and somewhat effective action. No one has to – or needs to – bully anyone else, we just start doing it.
And that, perhaps, is the most challenging step of all.