How Do You Solve a Problem Like Global Warming?
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I mentioned in my last post that there were several controversial topics that I had never covered, and I promised to rectify that. Well, as they say there’s no time like the present. You can probably guess from the title which topic that will be. Yes, the first subject I’m going to tackle is global warming. I probably don’t need to point out that this is a controversial topic, so I expect to get some flack, but I go where the truth takes me! Or at least where my completely subjective, inadequately informed, culturally biased perception of the truth takes me…
I’m not the only one who's been talking about global warming recently, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, who I’ve mentioned in this space before, has been spending a significant amount of time on it as well. Before going farther, I know that many people think Scott Adams has gone off the deep end. And I, personally, am a little bit tired of his repeated references to persuasion and hypnotism. Also, I think he sometimes engages in the bias of massaging his predictions after the fact to make them look better, but you know what? He would be the first to admit that he’s biased, and that he has biases he’s not even aware of. And whether or not he massages his predictions, he still called it for Trump over a year in advance, of the election, when very few people were. In other words, if we’re looking at whose side everyone is on in whatever weird battle is currently taking place, I think I’m on Adams’ side (particularly if there are only two sides.)
I bring Adams up because he’s been hammering home a point that I think is critical to understanding the issues and policy associated with global warming, i.e. it may be less about the facts and more about which side is the better persuader. Now, Adams is an absolute fiend for persuasion (as I said I’m a little sick of it) and so he would say something like this, but despite that I think he makes a very important and frequently overlooked point, in short, that global warming advocates may have overshot the mark.
In order to understand why that might be the case we need to begin by defining what global warming is. This may seem like an unnecessary first step, but the problem is that one of the ways in which advocates have overshot the mark is by bundling everything together, and in order to understand things we have to first unbundle the various assumptions if we really want to know what’s going on. The best way to do this is through a series of questions.
The first and most basic question: Is the Earth getting hotter? Much of the debate about global warming occurs at this level. On the one side you’ll see headlines like February 2017: Earth's 2nd Warmest February and 4th Warmest Month in Recorded History. And on the other side you might see someone claim that there was no appreciable warming from February 1997 through November of 2015. This is the debate about whether any global warming is actually happening. For my own part I’m convinced that it is. The evidence is substantial. But as usual the point is not to convince you to agree with me, but to dissect things in such a way that you understand it better.
At this level what is frequently happening is what Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow called the substitution fallacy (also the Masked-Man fallacy), where people substitute an easy question for a hard question. The hard question is “Should we completely remake the world economy to prevent global warming?” That’s a really difficult question, so people substitute, “Is the Earth getting warmer?” That’s an easier question to answer. And of course it should be pointed out that some people go one step farther to, “Did summer seem especially hot?” Often the substitution happens as the question is being asked. It’s far more common to hear, “Should we do something about global warming?” Than any questions involving carbon pricing or emission sequestration. And of course we should probably do something, but that’s pretty broad.
Once we’ve determined that yes, the Earth is getting hotter, the next question is, is it getting hotter because of human activity? The background temperature of deep space is -455 degrees fahrenheit. The average temperature of the Earth is around 57 degrees fahrenheit. Which means that the sun provides 512 degrees of warmth. If the average temperature of the earth goes up to 59 degrees, it’s not insane to argue that perhaps the warmth of the sun increased by 0.005%. I used to see arguments along these lines fairly often, but I haven’t seen them recently. I think the consensus is that the Earth is getting warmer, and humans are causing it through the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide. That’s certainly where I would put my money. Still how often do you see anyone try and separate warming from human activity. I think 99.5% of people don’t make any distinction between the two, and they’re probably totally correct not to, but you can see from even the short example I gave that it’s not ridiculous to do so.
Third, is global warming a bad thing? Or more specifically are the downsides to a warmer planet worse than the upsides? Not all change is bad. If manna started falling from heaven, ending world hunger, then despite the potential increase in obesity I think people would argue, that on the balance, it was a good thing. As far as global warming goes, we hear about a lot of bad things, the flooding of coastal cities, a plague of tropical diseases, worse hurricanes, etc. But we don’t hear much about any benefits. Is it possible that global warming is 100% bad, that everything gets worse with rising temperature? I suppose so, but that seems unlikely. There’s probably some benefits. I completely understand why none of the advocates would want to mention any potential benefits, but there are almost certainly a few of them.
I just recently read a book called Twilight of Abundance. I know someone, somewhere recommended it to me, but I’m not even sure who it was. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but it was interesting. The author, David Archibald, is a global warming skeptic, and a Malthusian. His big worry is that you have lots of countries, with serious population growth, which already import from half to 90% of their food. And therefore the biggest problem, in his opinion, is feeding those people. He doesn’t believe global warming is happening, but if it is, he thinks it would be a good thing, particularly if it increased the amount of arable land in places like Siberia. As I said I don’t think I’d recommend the book, but I also don’t think his opinions are so out there that they’re not even worth mentioning. Bill Gates was quoted as saying something broadly similar in an article about global warming a while back when he mentioned that if we don’t do something we’ll end up running the “2-degree experiment”. In other words no one is 100% sure what will happen when temperatures go up, it’s an experiment. I totally agree that it would be better if we didn’t conduct the experiment at all, but I think it’s implausible that rising temperatures won’t bring any benefits.
Fourth, now that we’ve established that the planet is warming, humans are causing it, and it’s a net bad thing, we have to ask, “How Bad?” If unchecked global warming will unquestionably cause humanity’s extinction, then that calls for far more extreme measures, than if it’s just going to cause everything to have to move a few more meters above sea level. Obviously, I don’t want to minimize the disruption caused by a sea level rise of several meters, but it’s not the same thing as the end of humanity. And we shouldn’t treat it the same way either. The third question, essentially asked, should we do anything? This fourth question asks how much should we do. If it means the end of humanity then nothing is off limits. But if it’s not that bad then the question of what we should do becomes a lot more complex.
Beyond this point there are other ways to break the issue down. We might ask what the US and China should be doing vs. what countries in Sub-Saharan Africa should be doing. We might get into the fact that sea levels could actually fall in certain places. Or we might get into minutia, like Climategate or cow farts. But I think we’ll stop it here. The key thing I wanted to illustrate was that when people speak of global warming they generally combine all four of these questions into a single assertion that unless we do something radical, anthropogenic human warming will cause the end of humanity. And maybe it will. You know I’m very careful about predicting the future. But if we’re going to speak intelligently about global warming it’s important to examine the various links in the chain. Too many people translate “February temperatures reach record high” into “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” And the two are not remotely the same thing.
This is something of a tangent, but before we go any farther it’s important to talk about climate change denial. By not immediately denouncing all denial as a crime akin to torturing kittens, and in fact even using the word “interesting” to describe some of the ideas, certain people may be assuming that I should be considered a “denier” as well. If that’s what you think, I doubt anything I can say will change your mind, which is too bad because reasonable disagreements and debates are one of the best ways to get at the truth, and that can’t happen if we only have access to one side. I would allow that there are certain situations of extreme emergency where debate has to be suspended, but I don’t see any reason for placing global warming in that category.
In any case I think “deniers” have had minimal impact on what’s actually happened. It’s not as if some charismatic denier kept us from taking the easy and obvious steps to prevent global warming. Doing anything about global warming is difficult, costly and politically unpopular even in the absence of doubt. In order to assume deniers have done any damage you have to show me where there was some credible path to stop global warming and it failed specifically because climate change deniers swung things the other way. As in, imagine voters in the Appalachian coal country who voted against something involving global warming specifically because they thought global warming wasn’t real and not because of the far more tangible fear that the legislation might cost them their jobs. I don’t think this has ever been the case. I understand lots of people have doubts about global warming, but that’s almost never the primary reason for doing one thing rather than another. Our hypothetical residents of coal country may have had doubts about global warming in addition to their fear of unemployment, but changing their belief in global warming would not have changed their votes. In any event I reject the idea that you can’t bring up the possibility that something might be wrong. End of tangent.
Having broken down the global warming debate into these various stages, maybe you can start to see why global warming advocates may have overshot the mark, but if not let me provide a metaphor. Imagine if you gave a very difficult test to a bunch of high school students, and told them that if they got a perfect score they could go to a good college, but that if they missed even one question it would be the same as if they missed all the questions. How hard would these high school students try? Sure you might have a couple of overachievers who really gave it 100%, but most kids would check out the minute they came to a question they didn’t know. This, in my opinion, is what the current state of global warming advocacy looks like, particularly when it’s framed as an apocalyptic, extinction level event. It’s a really hard test that we have to ace. And yes there are some overachievers out there who are really trying, but most people are essentially high school students who are going to check out the minute you tell them they can’t have a hamburger.
If you disagree with this metaphor, perhaps you’re not aware of how hard the test is. Fortunately as I was working on this post Vox.com published an article laying out the exact details. Titled: Scientists made a detailed “roadmap” for meeting the Paris climate goals. It’s eye-opening. I agree that it’s eye-opening and I would recommend reading the whole article, but just to give you some highlights:
All new cars have to be electric by 2030. Currently, electrical cars are at around 1%, at least in the US. To go from 1% to 100% in 13 years would be one of the most amazing accomplishments ever. How many people do you know that even have a purely electrical car? Now imagine that everyone you know has one…
Carbon capture has to get to five gigatons per year by 2050. In other words we have to be removing 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it somewhere where it can’t escape. Currently, as best I can tell we are doing effectively zero carbon capture right now. But, by 2050, the article says, we would have to be capturing twice as much carbon as all the trees and soil on the entire planet.
In addition to perfecting carbon capture, there are a host of other technologies we’d have to invent. In particular we have to come up with a low carbon way for producing steel and concrete. We’d have to grow food with zero carbon emissions from land use. We’d have to make a huge investment in nuclear energy or invent much more effective batteries.
Finally we have to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half every decade. Currently the US, China and India are responsible for half of all emissions. Imagine that all three countries had to be completely carbon neutral by 2030. And then of course you have to halve it again in 2040, and then you have to halve it again by 2050.
All of this has to be done while at the same time the population continues to grow to 9.7 billion. As perhaps the best illustration of how difficult it is I refer you to another article also from Vox.com, where they talk about a “remarkable slowdown” in emissions. If you look at the article you’ll see that the remarkable slowdown is just emissions being flat for the last few years. If emissions need to go down by 90% while population increases by 50% then staying constant is not a “remarkable” slowdown it’s horrible.
I’ve talked about how difficult it’s going to be, but I haven’t talked about how bad it is if we fail. As I said above if this threatens the extinction of humanity we should do whatever it takes. But as far as I can tell it doesn’t. I haven’t seen a credible scenario on how global warming wipes out all of humanity. I see how it makes things really bad, how progress might be set back 50 years, and even where some people die. But I don’t see any scenario where it kills every last human. A few months ago I read the book Global Catastrophic Risks, which is a comprehensive examination of everything that might wipe out humanity, and while they have a chapter on climate change their conclusion is:
The key point to emphasize in the context of catastrophic risk is that this warming is expected to be quite smooth and stable. No existing best guess state-of-the-art model predicts any sort of surprising non-linear disruption in terms of the global mean temperature.
In other words there’s no tipping point where the Earth suddenly gets 50 degrees hotter. Further on it says:
While it’s true that a global mean temperature rise of 4℃ would probably constitute dangerous climate change on most metrics, it would not necessarily be catastrophic in the sense of being a terminal threat. The challenges they suggest our descendents will face look tough, but endurable.
If global warming is “tough but endurable” what’s really at stake? Generally when you talk about some big potential catastrophe what you’re really talking about is people dying. I am not an expert, but it doesn’t appear that global warming is bad because of all the lives that are stake. Yes, some people will die as a result of global warming whether it’s hurricanes, or tropical diseases or something else. But as I also pointed out it’s possible, maybe even likely that more people will be saved from hunger. I’ve already touched on that idea, but briefly, at a minimum we’re looking at longer growing seasons, an abundance of carbon dioxide, which plants love, and additionally, unlike how it’s often portrayed, a warmer world is a wetter world. So if people’s lives aren’t at stake, what is?
In short, progress is at stake. We’ve talked a lot about progress in this space, from the Religion of Progress, to the idea that progress has reduced deaths. We’ve also talked about how modern progress is sustained by using up the stored solar energy of millions of years in the space of a couple of centuries, which is course what causes global warming. Which means that what global warming really is, is a very costly challenge to this idea of never-ending progress. In simple terms it’s the challenge of having your cake and eating it too. This is why it’s so hard to do anything about global warming. People don’t have some higher want they’re willing to make sacrifices for. They’re not avoiding cake so they can lose weight. Global warming is essentially avoiding cake in order to maybe still have cake in 50 years. Very few people even understand that trade, and even fewer are willing to make it. Not even the people who are ostensibly very concerned with the issue (do a search for global warming and private jets).
As I say, so often I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe we will manage to do all the things I listed above. Maybe there will be hidden benefits to warming. Maybe there will be some tipping point and the world will get 50 degrees warmer all of the sudden. And maybe, just maybe the deniers are right. I don’t think so. I think global warming is happening, and I wish I knew what to do about it. But in the end it’s one more reason why the harvest is past, and the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
Solving global warming is not straightforward, or easy. If you’re looking for something easy and straightforward may I recommend donating to this blog. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, it’s just straightforward.