Monday, June 09, 2014

Global Warming and Wishful Thinking

Political beliefs affect what one wants to be true. People are pretty good at persuading themselves that what they want to be true is true.

That works in both directions in the context of arguments about climate change. People who share my political views are suspicious of government regulation, CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming) provides an argument in favor of more government regulation and is used as such an argument at present, so we naturally want to look for arguments against CAGW.

On the other side, it's my experience that people who think global warming is a terrible problem that must be dealt with are also, by some odd coincidence, people who think the things that need to be done to deal with it are things most of which ought to be done anyway, that the real cost is low or negative. They are likely to put that point in terms of creating a cleaner, more sustainable world. From their standpoint, CAGW provides arguments to persuade people to do things they want done, so they naturally want to look for arguments in favor of CAGW.

There is no logical reason why there could not be people out there who believe that a forced shift away from fossil fuels has very large human costs, that by raising the cost of energy it will slow or stop the process by which several billion people are finally escaping from poverty, but think the cost of not doing it is even worse. But despite participating in quite a lot of online climate arguments, I do not think I have encountered a single person  who takes that position.

[I specify CAGW rather than AGW because the argument for action to hold down CO2 emissions requires not only that the globe is warming because of human action but that the net effect of that warming will be negative and large. Also because my own view is that global temperatures have trended up over the past century, that at least part of the reason is probably CO2 produced  by human action, but that there is no good reason to expect the consequences to be negative and largeā€”for details see my old post on the subject and related posts. Hence I believe in AGW but not in CAGW.]


At 11:49 AM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simple ideas can be defended in short, usually caustic posts on the internet. Subtle ideas usually require something book-length. I think your experiences may well just be a reflection of the medium you're engaging people in.

An alternative explanation is that people do not for the most part think too much for themselves. They do somewhat since everybody has to by necessity, but coming up with a world-view from scratch or at least trying to verify that it's sound top to bottom is mentally daunting. So most of us get our arguments from university professors such as yourself, and as long as they don't trip too many heuristic bull-detectors off they're absorbed into our world-view more or less by osmosis. So if there's a certain incentive for the academics and intellectuals to adopt a certain viewpoint (say, gaining social capital for seeming to be profoundly moral persons), it cascades down to us.

At 11:56 AM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous js290 said...

The first order effects of climate change has to be the Sun. A close second would be the kinematics of the Earth about the Sun.

Efficient use of resources should not be conflated with climate change.

Maybe the real catastrophe is 8 billion people depending fossil fuels. Maybe time to re-think civilization.

Toby Hemenway - How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but Not Civilization

At 11:57 AM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Russ Nelson said...

And for completeness's sake, there are probably people who doubt AGW, but think that the world needs bigger government. I haven't run into any of those kind of people either.

At 12:17 PM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You just pretty much described my beliefs exactly. I think there are a lot of us. I don't participate (much) in such online debates, especially the ones on your blog, because it seems pretty futile to me. I don't really care about your thoughts on climate change, and I've been considering unsubscribing from your blog because you post about it so often. It's not your strong suit.

At 1:07 PM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Daublin said...

I find the same thing curious. Most people arguing that there is CAGW leap immediately to carbon controls, trains, and bicycling. Ask them about nuclear power, and they don't even consider it. Ask them about mitigation, and again, they don't even want to do the slightest thing.

At 2:20 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

I was half expecting a GW post by you after seeing the latest xkcd comic :) But perhaps it was just a coincidence.

Actually, Randall Munroe seems to closest to my knowledge to the person you mentioned as "missing". I have not talked to him about that or heard him express a clear opinion, but what I gather from his comic and other stuff, he seems to me like pretty much the guy who says "yes, this is costly, but it is the least of two evils". Also, he is, unlike so many people who support the current climate orthodoxy, in favour of nuclear power (quite actively, his contribution to lowering the Fukushima fearmongering - - was a really nice thing to see among all the alarmist nonsense). I think it is a strong indicator if a reasonable person. The people who say "climate change is a real problem and so we should focus more on generating electricity without producing CO2, including nuclear power" might be right. A person who puts nuclear power in the same category with fossil fuels (which, amazingly, a lot of people do, especially here in Germany, for reasons still not quite understandable for me) hold an indefensible opinion which is very likely motivated also by something other than just climate change worries (either it is irrational fear or they would like to see a world which not only produces less CO2, but also produces and consumes less energy overall).

I am still a bit undecided on this. although David made a persuasive case here, I would like to agree too much (since I also do not like government intrusions for reasons that have nothing to do with global warming) and have not explored the sensible people on the other side well enough, so I am agnostic for now.

At 2:42 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger jonabbey said...

I'm concerned about AGW and am very much in favor of nuclear power. I think that we should be moving away from the Rickover pressurized light water reactors in favor of passive fail-safe designs, and I'd love to see molten salt thorium fuel cycle reactors come on line.

This story:

illustrates the tension nicely. I hope that our technology moves in a direction that reduces the risk of AGW, but I am not in favor of endangering people along the way.

At 2:50 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger jonabbey said...

Stewart Brand has long been on the pro-nuclear side out of concerns over AGW as well.

At 4:03 PM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are one degree removed from the general case. Mostly it is not even a fact of being in favor of government control or being opposed to it, rather it is a case of being for political party A or political party B.
There is a perfectly good reason for this of course: rational ignorance. The actual cost of learning enough to make a good quality judgement (both the cost of knowledge acquisition, and the larger cost of the consequential cognitive dissonance) is often much larger than the benefit.
One of the primary benefits is the recreational benefit of discoursing on the subject. To so so effectively, since pretty much everyone else is rationally ignorant, one need only learn memes advocating your inherited views.
There is a certain visceral pleasure in passionately advocating a cause, even though the likelihood of impacting in any way is essentially zero. So recreation it is. Kind of like learning to play tennis.

At 7:07 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's somewhat close to my position.

An immediate move away from fossil fuel would be enormously costly, of course. It will also never happen, precisely because of that.

The best we can do is drive down the cost of alternatives. I would love nuclear to be a better option, but, at least in the US, it isn't cheaper once the implicit and explicit government subsidies are accounted for. (For that matter, fossil fuels would be noticeably more expensive without subsidies and implicit guarantees of tap-on-the-wrists for the first order damage they do, like Deepwater, the various exploding/derailing trains, groundwater contamination, etc.)

I do think, as an abstract matter, a serious push to transition worldwide to clean energy would be the best, or at least least-worst, policy. How painful to make it would be a choice, and I would expect some muddling and horse trading. I would prefer that not to be the case, and I don't believe it will happen, and that we are basically committed to a really bad outcome.

I suppose that makes me a bit of a climate-Cassandra.

I won't be alive when it is projected to start getting really bad, although, living at 4.5 feet above sea level, I may have to move as my neighborhood is destroyed. I also never had kids, so I don't have to worry on their account. I do w orry on behalf of a world that I love, an extended family, friends' kids, and cultures that I love.

At 8:17 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger jimbino said...

Anonymous: your last paragraph states what is most important in the AGW debate. Namely, that since folks who are childfree have already contributed to a "sustainable" planet, what is it that justifies taxing them now for the benefit of the progeny of the breeders, who are doing their best to promote unsustainability.

At 10:43 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Paul Ralley said...

Reminds me of this cartoon - not exactly rich in cost/benefit analysis


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