Defending the indefensible: against government action on climate change

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous post in the series: against development

Anyway, here’s the best case against government action on climate change I can write:

Let’s start with this: that Earth is warming and that human activity is the main contributor to that warming is not in doubt. It is true that many people disagree or argue against these two propositions, and they are wrong. But just because people are on your side for stupid reasons doesn’t do anything to invalidate your side. But what it does do is create an environment where the most extreme global warming alarmists can sound reasonable just by the argument being over whether global warming exists. And thus they have usurped the “reasonable” conversation around global warming. Instead, the question about global warming that should be being discussed is fourfold:

  • how big of a temperature change do we expect?
  • what effect on human life should we expect from that temperature change?
  • what should be our goal in terms of what to do about this potential effect?
  • what are the most effective strategies for achieving that goal?

In terms of the first, we have the IPCC estimates. There is good reason to believe that they are over-estimates. They rely on a direct relationship between greenhouse gas concentration and warming. Absorption is sublinear in greenhouse gas concentration (it is only linear in the strict 0 concentration limit), and energy balance is sublinear in absorption. Add in the sociological effect that climate research scientists care a lot about the climate [citation needed], and so are more likely to see threats to the climate as dire. However, I agree that in the presence of uncertainty, it’s sensible to be pessimistic, and so let’s split the difference say that the “current path without any changes in technology” gets us to +3-4 degrees C by 2100.

So, if we did less than nothing (i.e., prevented new technology from dealing with the issue), we’d get an Earth that is 3-4 degrees warmer by the end of the century. That brings us to the second question of effects on humans. I think it’s telling that the most talked-about global warming effects are disappearing glaciers and dying polar bears. These things are, of course, bad. But people aren’t glaciers, and don’t live on ice floes. Most of the world’s landmass is located at temperate or extreme latitudes, where an increase in temperature and precipitation is likely to lead to improvements in agriculture, and where people die from cold much more so than they do from heat. That is, much more of the Earth is currently “too cold” from the human perspective than it is “too hot”, and so there are a lot of potential positives from warming if it is managed right. At least, it doesn’t need to be the global catastrophe that is assumed. The main issue from the human perspective is rising sea levels, and the ability to migrate from places which are becoming less habitable to places that are becoming newly habitable. We have the technological means to address this. If you told someone in the Netherlands, say, that they are living in the hellscape of the global warming future, they wouldn’t be particularly impressed. Of course, the issue is that the Netherlands is rich and has good technologies for dealing with the sea, and other places don’t. But I think that also points us to the proven solution of how to deal with the human consequences of global warming: rapid technological advance and broadly shared economic growth.

The solution I believe in is in engineering and research, as well as in economic progress, rather in a project of social engineering to change peoples’ way of life. That last is not only morally wrong, but is also doomed to fail. Yet this is the tack taken by global environmental diplomacy such as the Kyoto protocols or the Paris accords. David Victr’s  Vox explainer on the US’ withdrawal from Paris brands Trump’s mention of the costs as “implausible and misleading” — not because they aren’t the real costs, but because the idea that the US’d actually try to honour its pledge is apparently nonsensical and “rejected by all the experts”. But if the US doesn’t honour its pledge, what was the point of the pledge? And so I ask, what use are these accords? If instead you invested that money in making Bangladesh a richer country, you would have done much much more to allay human suffering in general, and from global warming in particular. If you actually care about human flourishing in an era of global warming, then most “environmentalist” activity is ineffective to counterproductive.

So why are environmentalists engaging in it? My suspicion is that some are motivated not by a desire to prevent climate catastrophe, but by an aesthetic judgement about which ways of life are good. They are actually against cars, suburban life, consumerism. The thing is, I agree: I don’t like these things either! But those are all things that many people do like, and so they bring the world a lot of happiness. We shouldn’t be looking for excuses to try to get rid of them. On balance, don’t randomly take away people’s choices of doing what makes them happy, even if your choices are very different. But again, the existence of bad reasons to support a certain argument doesn’t mean the argument is wrong. I am not saying that this motivation renders what environmentalists say about global warming untrue. I just want to amplify the point that if we actually care about people, we should be trying to save the way of life that people would prefer to have in the face of global warming, rather than using global warming as an excuse to change it. And environmentally-coded actions done by governments, corporations or individuals are doing the latter. Investing more in science and technology, and reducing inequality in the world is what would actually do the former.

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Defending the indefensible: anti-development

We used to write that this blog has a tradition of defending the indefensible, where we quibbled with attacks on Paul Ryan, Satoshi Kanazawa, and other people we found unsavoury.

Now I wanted to try something slightly different. I wanted to write some defences of viewpoints I strongly disagree with. More in the spirit of an “Intellectual Turing Test” than as devil’s advocacy. Of course it’s not a real “ITT” because I’m telling you I don’t agree with the overall viewpoint. However, I am still trying to be honest as possible, and basically this is what is most persuasive to me. What I don’t want this to be is an exercise in being offensive or shitty with plausible deniability. That would be edgelordery, and I dislike edgelordery a lot. Instead, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry. Anyway, here’s the best case against development I can write:

We are often told that Vancouver, Seattle, SF, etc. (pick your city), is growing, and so gentrification is inevitable as new housing needs to be built to accommodate new arrivals. However, I don’t know whether non-availability of housing stock is actually the limiting factor. I kind of suspect it isn’t. There are more dwellings sitting empty in Vancouver than there are homeless people, for example. And that is scratching the surface of housing that is, in effect, misallocated to under-used luxury developments, including the newest things being built right now. Developers say development is necessary to resolve the housing crisis, and then use that argument to get rich off selling multi-million dollar investment-dwellings that sit empty, doing very little to resolve this crisis, which thus persists and needs to be solved with further development. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it sure sounds like a convenient crisis to keep around.

The pro-development viewpoint for how to solve this comes down to “Let developers develop,” to quote Dan Savage’s piece. The claim is that, of course, with development being limited, the developers go for the richest slice of the market first, but opening up development further will help the less well-off as well. This prescription is amazingly broad, and I have less than zero trust that developers will have the interests of the community or of the poor in mind. At this point, a pro-development person will usually say that of course regulations of new development are necessary to ensure that the community as a whole can reap the benefits. And that’s well and good. In principle, with a well-thought-through set of regulations, I’m not against development. But here’s the problem: these regulations have a habit of not actually appearing and all you get is another super fancy condo that stands empty. What this conversation amounts to is that pro-development people are using an “Economics 101” argument that isn’t as applicable to real life as they think. As it is, between two options that don’t address the housing crisis, then, is it really that surprising that I prefer the one that doesn’t destroy the existing community in the process?

The pro-development side often points to places like the Mission and Washington, DC to show the evils of restricting development. And it’s true that the Mission is in an untenable situation. Yet the alternative is something like Yaletown in Vancouver or SLU in Seattle. It’s not the case that new development allowed the community to survive in a different guise. Instead it’s that these places have no sense of community at all. At least in the Mission, the displacement is not total. A person who has been living in the Mission for years may not feel happy about the changes in their neighbourhood. But having to move somewhere else would have been even more annoying. A place like Yaletown resembles a gated development more than anything else. And this gating has terrible effects on what happens in the city more broadly. If you can isolate the poor somewhere away from you, you can pretend they don’t exist and don’t need help.

Savage suggests that instead of worrying about gentrification as such, activists focus on transit politics. First of all, this is a false choice. Activism on one front doesn’t actually do anything to take away from activism from another front. Instead, you often get — ugh, don’t make me say it — “synergy”. I am in general distrustful of “pay attention to this thing not this other thing in your activism” arguments, because they are very likely to be concern trolling (e.g., “why are you feminists concerned with restrictions on abortion in the US when in Saudi Arabia women have no rights at all?”). This also sidesteps the issue that transit politics is itself quite complicated and not decoupled from development politics at all. What do we spend limited transit money on? If we spend it on linking outlying parts of the agglomeration to the centre, we risk not actually doing much to reduce sprawl or commute times or reliance on cars as the suburbs move further out to take advantage of the park and rides. However, spending it inside the urban core while also filling that urban core with luxury developments risks pushing out the poor into underserved banlieues.

Still, you might say, what does protesting development actually get you? Developments or no, the rich are going to be able to afford to outbid the non-rich for the existing housing as well, and gentrification will proceed apace. My view is that it creates a natural coalition to fight for the interests of the community. And this coalition-building is likely to be useful in the future.

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