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Yglesias on Break Through:

Matthew Yglesias has a review of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility in today's NYT. Here's a taste:

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have worked in the environmental movement not as grand theorists but as public opinion researchers, and their work in this realm is enormously valuable. Polls often cited as evidence of broad support for environmental goals, they note, also show that support to be extremely shallow, making it difficult to persuade people to give up things they enjoy or need — cheap gasoline, jobs in industries like coal mining or logging — in order to advance environmental ends. In response, environmentalists tend to emphasize the dire consequences of inaction and, when that doesn't work, to ratchet up the doomsday narratives that Nordhaus and Shellenberger justifiably compare to religious tales of sin and damnation.

"We know from extensive psychological research," they write, "that presenting frightening disaster scenarios provokes fatalism, paralysis and ... individualistic thoughts of adaptation, not empowerment, hope, creativity and collective action." Insecurity, they argue, is an emotional pillar of reactionary politics, not a building block for the sort of farsighted, progressive thinking that is required to prevent ecological disaster.

Instead of sticking with this crucial point, however, "Break Through" tries to use postmodern philosophy to transmute an insight about public opinion into one about public policy. The authors conflate conventional environmentalist rhetoric and conventional policy prescriptions (mandatory curbs on carbon emissions) to create a supposed "politics of limits" that must be transcended through a "politics of possibility."

But whatever the shortcomings of their rhetoric, environmentalists have a very good reason to push for some limits, however much of a downer that message might be. Global warming is caused by carbon emissions and can be contained only by reducing them. Nordhaus and Shellenberger's preferred alternative — huge investment in alternative energy — doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. . . . even as a matter of crass politics, Nordhaus and Shellenberger neglect a basic point: the hard part about gaining support for a new initiative isn't convincing people of its value but finding the money to pay for it. The conventional solutions to global warming posed by the "politics of limits" — taxing carbon emissions, or issuing tradeable emissions to carbon-producing firms — conveniently raises revenue that could be used to pay for the very projects the authors wish to see.

My own Break Through review is here, see also this post on the book.

Warmongering Lunatic:
Alternative energy exists and works. It's spelled N-U-C-L-E-A-R.
1.13.2008 4:56pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
Global warming is caused by carbon emissions and can be contained only by reducing them.


I'm not so sure about the second part. Surely there are ways we could make the world cooler without reducing carbon emissions, right? Say, water vapor emissions, or dumping crap in the ocean. I'm not saying they're better alternatives, but it's seems like way too many people jump straight from AGW exists, to AGW is bad, to AGW must be solved through atmospheric carbon reductions without thinking through the steps or the alternatives.
1.13.2008 5:05pm
Randy R. (mail):
Adler: "But no one, they contend, is going to demand draconian emission limits—the kind that would actually slow the warming trend—if they bring down the standard of living and interrupt the progress of the economy."

But presumably, if the environment changes so much that it brings down everyone's standard of living and interrupts the progress of the economy, well, then I guess everyone is just hunky-dory with that.
1.13.2008 5:28pm
r78:
this message brought to you, in part, by Chevron
1.13.2008 6:17pm
Oren:
Just another example of how the million-year-old brain we inherited from the monkeys makes fundamental mistakes when attempting to analyze the modern world. Ascribing more danger to a pathetic force that results from agency (aka, Al Qaeda) than one that will fundamentally change the world but is impersonal and vague (AGW) makes perfect sense evolutionarily despite being objectively wrong. What's worse, the brain is designed to allow irrational fears to override the rational thinking process quite easily (after all, it makes no sense to cogitate about an impending threat) but the reverse is intentionally made difficult. Anybody that has gone skydiving or bungee jumping is keenly aware of this particular adaptation.

Ironically, had science and technology proceeded on a time-scale commensurate to natural selection (i.e. much slower than it did), we would have evolved abilities more appropriate to modern challenges. We are, in the most literal sense, victims of our own success - too stupid to properly understand and use our own newfound power.
1.13.2008 6:21pm
pmorem (mail):
In the previous comments, I see lots of evidence that those who advocate curbing CO2 production reach first for insult rather than fact. Those who raise questions are called corrupt ("by Chevron"), stupid ("million-year-old brain") and evil. I find the rhetoric to be disturbing, and my instinct is to treat it as an invitation to combat.

I have looked at the analysis behind AGW. I have a number of doubts about it. There are questions about the data, the models, and the solution.

The most serious is the assumption that the Sun is more or less constant. This is based on a very small period of observation, with direct measurements only coming in the last half century. Before that, everything is by proxy. This is not a meaningful data sample. Solar Irradiance data is not even sufficient to prove that fusion has been occurring in the Sun for the entire period we've been scientifically observing it. Solar Neutrinos indicate that it is, but that activity is thousands of years removed from Irradiance.

We know the planet experiences ice ages. There are multiple explanations for ice ages, and we cannot rule out solar variability. If solar variability is a major cause, then we're due for it. As best we can tell, onset is fairly rapid.

If our inter-glacial period ends, the question will not be "does AGW happen?", but rather "will it be enough?"

I am deeply troubled that the best case prediction by the IPCC is "not by half".
1.13.2008 9:02pm
Brian K (mail):
I see lots of evidence that those who advocate curbing CO2 production reach first for insult rather than fact.

I supposed you skipped this one and this one and this one and this one.
1.13.2008 9:19pm
Brian K (mail):
and, of course, this one
1.13.2008 9:20pm
pmorem (mail):
Point taken. That first paragraph is not the best way I could have addressed the toxic atmosphere surrounding discussions of AGW. I'll have to think about how to address it differently in the future.

That said, the rest of my comment stands. I'll add as well this further question:

What if you're wrong?
1.13.2008 9:39pm
Brian K (mail):
What if you're wrong?

This question works both ways. I don't see how it is useful outside of evaluating the magnitude of the consequences of either side's wrongness. but even this is not that useful without a corresponding estimate of how likely each side is to be right (or wrong) and if we could do that I don't think we'll be having this debate.
1.13.2008 9:47pm
Randy R. (mail):
Let's see: If we are totally wrong, and there is no global warming, then the worst that happens is that we clean up the environment and reduce our dependency upon a dirty source of energy that enriches peoples who dislike us. And we become more energy efficient. Then there are whole new industries by which people can become enriched and employed.

Whoa! That's simply unacceptable. Better to do nothing and continue spewing smoke into the atmosphere. It's worked so well for us.
1.13.2008 10:10pm
pmorem (mail):
I think it's a useful question. Not so much in terms of evaluating nightmare scenarios (which both are), but in terms of evaluating approaches for dealing with the uncertainty.

I ask the question, "If I'm wrong, how will my current course of action affect the situation 50 or more years from now?" There is a range of possible values for "wrong" as well, ranging from ice age to significant global warming to impending celestial impact to things we can't conceive as the greatest hazard.

For myself, I have chosen to undertake a course that works out as beneficial across the range (though less so if an ice age comes). That's just me, though. I'm not advocating my choice to anyone else.

The best tool I've found for analyzing this is called "Failure Modes Effects Analysis". It doesn't use probabilities, but when you don't have any probabilities, it's really the only tool that works at all.
1.13.2008 10:23pm
Randy R. (mail):
I'm not going to get into another discussion about whether climate change is real — obviously some people deny that it is, and nothing I can say will change their minds.

However, it does make one think. We were told that we can't sign the Tokyo Accords because our country couldn't afford the $500 billion estimate that it would cost. That obviously is not true, since we entered a war that has cost us much more than that, and, as Republicans are wont to remind us, it hasn't affected the economy at all. Therefore, we could have afforded Tokyo no problem.

Some people are very sceptical of climate change. That's great! Healthy scepticism is always appropriate. But why weren't these same people sceptical of gov't claims that we need to invade Iraq? All it took was a statement from Bush and Powell that there are WMDs all over Iraq, and boom — everyone believes it. But get 90% of the climatologists to agree on climate change, and it must be opposed until there is absolute unanimity from absolutely everyone.

But we all know that it isn't about climate change at all. It might be an asteroid coming right at us. It could a disease released that will wipe out half of the population, anything at all. But if it's a cause championed by liberals, then by god the conservatives will fight it tooth and nail. They would rather be dead that admit that a liberal is right. Evidence? Look at they hyperbole leveled against Al Gore. People have argued on this blog that all environmentalists really hate America, and that they cooked up this issue just to destroy America. They have really argued that!

So let's stop pretending that this is about science, or the economy, or what we can or should do. It's all about being the opposite of your perceived enemy, come hell or high water. Literally.
1.13.2008 10:25pm
Oren:
pmorem - I will start by saying that I in no way attribute your particular doubts about global warming to either corruption or stupidity (James Inhof, OTOH . . . ). I also thought I made fairly clear that the human brain is a marvelous invention, bogged down only by the fact that it evolved in a very different set of circumstances than its current use.

Proceeding from the POV that your complaints are in good faith, I honestly have no idea what I can possibly say at this point that will make a difference. I am certainly tempted to refute the various scientific misstatements of your post but I know that this will lead nowhere (and VC is hardly a place for a debate on the scientific merits). I was likewise tempted to cite the nearly universal scientific consensus on the big picture of AGW but you will likely dismiss that as argumentum ad verecundiam (worse still, you will accuse the world's scientists of either group-think or conspiracy).

Where's the common ground here?
1.13.2008 10:35pm
pmorem (mail):
Randy, it depends on how it's done.

"Totally wrong" doesn't mean there is no global warming. "Totally wrong" means we enter an ice age. "Totally wrong" means much of North America and Europe gets ground under glaciers.

I don't have a problem with voluntary actions. I don't have a problem with finding technologies that are competitive or even cheaper than CO2 emitting technologies.

I have a problem with giving force of law to any of this. I have a serious problem with giving more power to the UN. I might take up arms against any effort to outlaw dissent against AGW. All those steps have been advocated, and they are all difficult to reverse.
1.13.2008 10:36pm
Oren:
Randy, people have argued all sorts of irrational things: environmentalists hate America, the weather channel created the global warming hoax to boost ratings... As a supporter of the general AGW consensus, the only thing to do that doesn't seem counterproductive is to calmly and rationally respond when appropriate and to abstain when not.

If you can conceive of a better way to convince people, let me know.
1.13.2008 10:43pm
A.C.:
How about this --

To the extent that efforts to lower carbon emissions are forward-moving, in the sense of encouraging innovation and new technologies and job growth, we should all embrace them.

To the extent that they are backward-moving, in the sense of either reducing the life chances of working people and women or of encouraging a nasty sort of government nit-picking into ordinary people's private lives, we should resist them.

Voluntary simplicity movements are neutral, as long as you don't get your particular simplicity on someone else's back.

This strikes me as the best balance between green values and all the other values people have. I mean, we know the rich will do well regardless. The question is how to ensure the best lives for everyone else.
1.13.2008 10:48pm
Oren:
I have a problem with giving force of law to any of this. I have a serious problem with giving more power to the UN. I might take up arms against any effort to outlaw dissent against AGW. All those steps have been advocated, and they are all difficult to reverse.

(1) No treaty can remove rights secured to American citizens by the bill of rights (can't find the cite now, something about an American citizen on British soil and a treaty that gave the British the right to try same in their courts).
(2) Given the current SCOTUS precedent, it is impossible to criminalize dissent against anything.
(3) Given (1) and (2) your complaint about outlawing dissent against AGW is, charitably, seriously misinformed.
1.13.2008 10:54pm
pmorem (mail):
I realize this is nutpicking. Still, the talk disturbs me.

Oren asked: Where's the common ground here?

Part of the difficulty in finding common ground with me is that I don't offer up much. I'm not asking you to agree with me, and I don't really even want you to. I don't even agree with me. That doesn't mean we don't have common ground. I think we probably do. In fact, I think there's far more common ground than most anyone is saying.

I'll try to lay out my parameters:
1) Mass die-off events from any cause are not acceptable to me. I don't think I should have to say this, but unfortunately I've met some people who disagree. I am not interested in finding common ground with those who disagree.
2) In general, I favor agility (long read for an obscure point). That is, I favor courses of action which increase our ability to react to changing circumstances.
3) I like to hedge my bets. I'm probably wrong on a lot of things, so I prefer to have as many possible values of "wrong" covered.

I'm not a conservative. I'm a lot closer to Promethean, but that isn't right either. Some of my reactions are knee-jerk (as Randy indicated), but that's not to politics as much as to rhetoric.
1.14.2008 12:04am
M. Simon (mail) (www):
What about the problems of an Ice Age which some solar scientists are predicting?

After all interglacials last about 10,000 years. We are due for a drastic cooling. Can the earth support 9 billion humans by farming under ice?

Temperatures have been flat for about a decade. A stall in a rising trend or an inflection point?
1.14.2008 10:11am
M. Simon (mail) (www):
There are some energy things on the horizon that could change everything.

Easy Low Cost No Radiation Fusion

WB-7 First Plasma
1.14.2008 10:14am
Randy R. (mail):
Oren: "If you can conceive of a better way to convince people, let me know."

Of course, you are correct. Sane rational discussion is the only way to win over people. The idiots will never be, so I guess we shouldn't waste time on them.

Still, it's very hard to remain calm when the Washington Post reports, as it did today, that there is escalating ice loss in Antartica, and that the sheets are melting "in an area once thought to be unaffected by global warming."

Here's where my frustration lies: First, let's assume climate change is upon us, and let's take the moderate view, that change will be gradual over the next 100 years, and that if nothing is done by 2020, the change will be irreversible. (That's the moderate view, the more alarmist view is that we are pretty close to the tipping point already).

We are arguing about what measure we should take, should the free market solve our problems, can we take measures at a state level vs. a federal level, what about other countries, what about our soveriegnty, and so on. These are all completely valid questions and they need to be ironed out and addressed before action can take place.

But there is just one problem: All these issues are man-made issues. They have no connection whatsoever to climate change. We can't tell nature to hold off on this until will get the political frame work correct. We can't make the harm 'fair' or the remedies cost-free. To me, it's like the Titanic sinking -- it's unfair, it disrupted people's plans, people lost their property for no reason, people didn't do their job and so on. But the bottomline is that when the ship is sinking, the cold water doesn't really care about you or your political problems, or your ideology. It doesn't care whether you are liberal or conservative, or how you vote or how rich you are.

So while we dither on about all these side issues That Absolutely Must Be Resovled before we can take any steps to combat climate change, the ice melts, the sea rises, the Atlantic converor belt may reverse and hundred years from now people will think what jerks we were for making excuses instead of taking action.

So let's hope I'm wrong.
1.14.2008 11:57am
Randy R. (mail):
One thing that really strikes me as hypocritical:
There are people out there, and many on this blog, who argue that it's okay to get rid of our civil rights, our privacy, and go ahead with torture and all this, and their reasoning is that these Islamists radicals or whomever really want to kill us. They say, what good are civil rights if you are dead? So they are willing to give up constitutional protections in order to protect us from this fear. Now, I don't agree with this line of reasoning, but I know it's out there. I've met many people who firmly believe it.

Yet, these same people refuse to apply the same logic to climate change. Here is an event that will destroy our economies, hurt the poor people around the world the most, radically alter the way people live and create all sorts of problems. Yet their response is to do nothing. Or if we do, then we have to respect all our legal and political institutions. If climate change is only half as bad as most experts think it will be, it will be catastrophophic -- so why can't we suspend parts of the Constitution to stop this from happening? AFter all, if we are all dead from tropical diseases that spread into the US, then what's the point in having the Constitition?

Now, of course, I'm not really advocating we suspend our laws. But why aren't people clamoring for the same remedy to two threats?
1.14.2008 12:07pm
conor:

Let's see: If we are totally wrong, and there is no global warming, then the worst that happens is that we clean up the environment and reduce our dependency upon a dirty source of energy that enriches peoples who dislike us. And we become more energy efficient. Then there are whole new industries by which people can become enriched and employed.


That's one possibility. How about this - if there is no Global Warming then a very large amount of money will be spent to no purpose. The cost of energy will go up to no purpose. And that money will be spent not just by those of us who can afford but by those who cannot. That's lives lost.

For example: I've visited one developing country (Indonesia) in my life and actually got to go out to the proverbial sticks while I was there. One of the things I saw there but didn't really think about was the architecture of the houses - they all had roof with gaps between the roof and the wall. As I read later this was done because it makes the house cooler - air circulates. The downside is that it's structurally unsound. This in a country prone to earthquakes. In the US the answer to "it's too hot outside " is AC but over there (at least in the sticks) that costs more money then they have to spend. So they take chances.

I think it's possible that some of the people on the Pro Global Warming side don't appreciate the fact that while in this country we swim in money - nobody here dies or even takes risks because of lack of it - in other parts of the world people do. Raising the cost of Energy or putting the global economy through massive structural changes will have costs. Maybe it's worth it but it's hard to deny that reality.
1.14.2008 2:47pm
Oren:
I realize this is nutpicking. Still, the talk disturbs me.
Well, be comforted by the fact that, in the US at the very minimum, such talk cannot possibly be actualized.

Raising the cost of Energy or putting the global economy through massive structural changes will have costs. Maybe it's worth it but it's hard to deny that reality.
I think the universal position on the side of the AGW folks is that the costs are going to be significantly larger if we do nothing.
1.14.2008 5:07pm
Warmongering Lunatic:
The easy-to-achieve, low-sacrifice way to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions is to replace coal with nuclear. We can do it with already-existing technology, at an already competitive price, distributed through existing infrastructure, and cut U.S. CO2 emissions some 35%.

All we need is for the organized environmental movement — the very people most loudly telling us AGW is a crisis — to stop standing in the way, and nuclear becomes politically viable.

So, think AGW is a crisis? It's not the skeptics you have to convince. It's the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and the rest of the nuclear rejectionists. When they genuinely believe AGW is a crisis, and are willing to change their policies to address it, the issue will be addressed.
1.14.2008 5:44pm
Greg F (mail):
But get 90% of the climatologists to agree on climate change, and it must be opposed until there is absolute unanimity from absolutely everyone.


I am still looking for the poll of "climatologists" that shows this "unanimity". Perhaps you could point me to it?
1.14.2008 7:19pm
Fat Man (mail):
Global warming is caused by carbon emissions and can be contained only by reducing them.


Why does b(Global warming can be contained only by reducing carbon emissions), follow from a (Global warming is caused by carbon emissions)?

Maybe the best way to deal with the problems created by global warming is to accommodate them. E.g. if your land is about to be flooded by a rising sea, one way of dealing with the problem is to reverse Global Warming. But that may not be the fastest, nor the most economical way of dealing. It might be cheaper and faster to move to higher ground, or to build dikes.
1.14.2008 9:35pm