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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