28 Jul 2011

Climate science, fascism and incentives

Rich Mills offers a comment:

We disagree on so many things, and yet we agree on the most important thing.

You seem sure that the earth's climate is in a warming trend that is unnatural and therefore not reversible by nature. I am not so sure.

You seem sure that said warming is a result of the use of fossil fuels. I am not so sure.

You seem almost as sure that the results of warming will be bad for the earth. I am not at all certain that, if the earth were really warming, we can know what the effects will be.

You point out that nine out of every ten scientists who are skeptical of global warming work for a petroleum company, which has a vested interest in not having fossil fuels demonized. I would like to point out that probably ninety-nine out of a hundred scientists who are convinced the earth is warming work in some capacity for a government, which has a vested interest in scientific results that could lead to more regulation and thus more power for the government.

With regard to the warming itself, it is now well-known that the famous “hockey stick” graph first used to demonstrate man's responsibility for global warming, was wrong. In fact, “The Little Ice Age” that ended in the mid-nineteenth century explains much of the warming of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some warming was to be expected after an unusually cool period.

In addition, there is no real “normal” temperature for earth around which the climate should remain in proximity. The earth's temperatures have varied greatly throughout the millennia.

Finally, on the subject of the warming itself, I believe it was about eight hundred years ago that Vikings started settling in Greenland. They farmed, raising both human food crops and feed for their dairy cattle. After a couple hundred years, the winters started getting colder and longer, and the Vikings died or left. A couple years ago, retreating ice in Greenland revealed some previously unknown Viking settlements. Land that for several hundred years was unfit for human farming had been farmed before the onset of the Little Ice Age. In other words, the earth was warmer during the later period of the Viking age than it is today. Presumably the human impact on the climate was negligible at this time, but I guess one cannot be sure.

But we do agree on some things.

I think your idea for auctioning water is brilliant, though I wonder if the use of more frequent auctions (weekly or even daily), combined with the emergence of futures and options markets in water, might lessen the need for the “fascist” elements of the “all-in” system. At any rate, even keeping the all-in system, I think more frequent auctions would be better.

I could even support a pollution and carbon tax provided it was linked to the ending of the “progressive” income tax for which could be substituted a modest flat tax and a national sales tax of the “Fair Tax” variety. The resulting tax system should aim to be revenue negative, because I don't think the government needs to take such a big bite out of the economy.

And we agree on the big thing: that free markets, with their attendant private property rights and a system for redress in the event of the violation of those rights, almost always offer the possibility of the most flexible and practical human responses to changes in the environment. Government fiat is, at best, clumsy, slow and a medicine whose side effects seem inevitably worse than the disease it was meant to cure. At worst, and most often, government fiat allows groups with the most political clout to profit at the expense of the majority of relatively “cloutless” people.

To this, I responded:
I agree that there is bias in science, but there's a very strong reward to undermining poor research (fame!) so I am still with the "CC is happening" crowd.

Even so, we agree on the best ways to deal with mitigation. I am spending more time on adaptation (i.e., given that it's happening, what shall we do?) and market signals can be useful in minimizing harm (far more than a government SNAFU)
And Rich replied with:
In regard to your statement about the reward to undermining poor research, there are also risks (potential costs). One of those would be ostracism. That possibility can also be a powerful motivator. I'm not knocking scientists. They're human, that's all I'm saying. Also, I'm open to being convinced about climate change, but I haven't been yet.
Your thoughts?


Alex Trembath said...


Please see this post about a new report (and the report itself, if you're interested) called "Climate Pragmatism." The report is based on the idea that carbon pricing is no longer politically tenable, and that action on reducing GHG emissions should come from policies motivated by technological innovation, extreme weather adaptation, and no-regrets pollution reduction.

Regarding your post, this report might be relevant because it seeks out motivation for action on emissions reduction that DON'T rely on "belief" in climate change.

Shane said...

There's a nice video wherein the late Stephen Schneider of Stanford University does a Q&A with a roomful of Australian climate skeptics. Although it's only ~45 minutes (and is cut off at the end, alas) he covers many of the points raised by this comment/post.

Alex Trembath said...

Sorry--forgot the link: http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2011/07/climate_pragmatism_innovation.shtml

Joan said...

I would like to point out that probably ninety-nine out of a hundred scientists who are convinced the earth is warming work in some capacity for a government, which has a vested interest in scientific results that could lead to more regulation and thus more power for the government.

Strange argument: I´m working for the university so I would be interested in more power to the governement? Why??

I can´t take well-informed people serious that think that current CC is natural. Please let him check CO2 concentration during Viking period, for example.

Tim in Albion said...

I am somewhat encouraged to note people beginning to move away from the idea that responding to CC must mean trying to reverse it. It's unfortunate that the whole issue has become divided into two camps, one of which believes CC is driven by CO2 emissions and therefore we should reduce those emissions in order to cause the climate to return to what it was in some idyllic point in recent history; and the other rejects the whole notion. Both of those ideologies are seriously flawed.

Maybe it's because I'm a geologist and therefore tend to think in longer time-frames, but I've been baffled by the way people seem to assume climate change is an aberration. Geologic history clearly shows that rapid oscillations in global climate characterize the last 2 million years of Earth history. Climate scientists do not yet understand exactly what triggered those changes. So it seems obvious to me that we ought to focus our minds and efforts on adaptation strategies that are robust against uncertainty.

Climate change and CO2 emissions are separable issues. We can and should reduce emissions, for a number of good reasons, but we don't really have any choice about whether to adapt to the climate. It will continue to change, whether we agree about it or not, and one way or another we will adapt.

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