Thoughts on climate change (not all original*):
Leaving the world as you found it is not good enough. Your moral responsibility is to make your world a better place, not to leave it as you found it.
What is the goal of climate science? Shouldn’t the science of climate change be about determining how to change the climate and make it the best it can be? Or has someone already concluded that the current one is as good as it gets? (Darn.)
Climate change is a big problem only for poor people. No one really needs to worry about climate change for us Americans. We’re wealthy. We have air conditioners, indoor heat, and clean running water on the 45th floor. We can populate Minneapolis and Houston with equal ease. If it’s too cold in Cleveland, we move to North Carolina. If we get tired of hurricanes, we move. Our children leave home. Their children move. When Canada finally warms up, people will move there, too. The problem of climate change is for people in underdeveloped countries.
Coming global climate change is significant only for our great-grandchildren, and even they will hardly notice. Predictions, say, that by now Manhattan would be under water were never more than exaggerations to raise awareness. Significant global climate change is a very slow process. Locally, sure, old folks will tell their grandchildren about how the weather has changed. But to even find global change takes massive research, the most advanced instrumentation, and detailed records. Without that, no one could notice.
Of course the climate is changing. And there is nothing you can do about that. Archaeologists have always known this. Reports coming in now indicate weather in America is measurably different than it was even in our grandparents’ day. Sunspots, volcanoes, geothermal cycles, tectonic shifts, river silting, lots of things are changing climates, local and global. Always have and always will. That’s not disputed. The hard questions are over how much human activities increase, reduce, or offset the natural change and if so, to what extent globally and not just locally. No matter what you all do, someday Greenland will again be green, Northern Canada will be temperate, and what is my little plot of land in Manhattan will be under water. (I’m at peace with that.)
Yes, clean and comfortable lives for everyone changes the climate. The just-released National Climate Assessment compares the situation fifty years ago to today. It finds that climate change isn’t just some theoretical future. The climate has already been changing. And, the report claims, the price for letting us all have air conditioning, dishwashers, clothes dryers, our own cars, clean air, and clean water has been that we have to live with today’s climate instead of the one my grandmother had. (I’m OK with that, too)
Low-cost energy slashes climate-related deaths. In developed countries, death from heat and cold are rare. (And getting even rarer.) No one there dies from famine. Modern buildings survive hurricanes. Shanty houses don’t. In America, when people get stranded by floods, we rescue them with helicopters. Helicopters! Ten thousand pounds floating in mid-air! We can eliminate more flood casualties in America by making cheaper (energy-sucking) helicopters and stronger (energy-sucking) levees than we ever will by reducing carbon footprints. The trade-off isn’t even close.
The best response to climate change: Eliminate poverty. Instead of helping the poor deal with climate change, just make them all as wealthy as Americans—or better, make them as wealthy as we can be in a hundred years. That’s a lot easier than planetary engineering. And people will like the result a lot more. And it can be done sooner. We know a country can, with a good government and access to reliable low-cost energy, grow from abject poverty to wealth in only fifty years. That’s plenty fast to outrun climate change. Plenty fast. Is there really a poor grandmother in the world who would say, “I know my grandkids could have prosperous and clean lives in fifty years, but then they’d be living ten miles inland. Our hut here would then be under water. Please don’t let that happen.”?
Science develops slowly when you can’t run controlled experiments. We must accept that. The hard test for any curve-fitting model comes when it has to make a forecast (as many stock-market investors learn the hard way). Past climate models have been good at fitting past data and weak at forecasting. For systems where you can’t run controlled experiments (such as stock markets and climate) it’s best to hold back the most recent data and see if your model can predict what happened. But for systems without a long history of detailed data (such as climate), you don’t want to hold back anything. You need all the data you can get. The latest AR5 models are supposed to be better than the AR4 ones, but not because they have successfully forecast anything yet; rather they have just successfully fit more past data. (See p. 869 of the AR5 WGI on models for global mean surface temperature.) We won’t really know how good these new models are until they successfully forecast the future. So far, none have.
Warning: The IPCC uses a specialized—and potentially misleading—vocabulary. “Abrupt climate change,” for example, sounds like Miami is about to flood, but what is abrupt in climate change is slow for humans. The IPCC defines “abrupt climate change” as large-scale change that occurs over a human generation, then lasts a generation, and substantially disrupts things (p. 70). By that definition, countless generations of fishermen and farmers have lived through and adapted just fine to “abrupt climate change.” And remember that the value, in sixty years, of a residential asset today, is zero, with or without global warming.
Be wary when climate scientists say “likely.” AR4 had a poor system for expressing uncertainty. A strict statistical analysis could say something is unlikely to happen yet the IPCC author could say there was medium confidence that it would happen. The old system was wisely replaced in AR5. (See IPCC Guidance Note). The new guidelines even warned researchers of the “tendency for a group to converge on an expressed view and become overconfident in it” and that “experts tend to underestimate structural uncertainty.” The new guidelines distinguish qualitative uncertainty (“confidence”) from quantitative (“likelihood”), with good guidance on the first especially. But alas, on the second, when statistical results simply do not provide a probability, the guidelines allow “expert judgment” to be used instead. So when you see “very likely” (always italicized in IPCC reports) and read that this means “90–100% probability,” be careful. You cannot assume that this is the confidence interval you learned in statistics class. It could instead be a summary of what the experts (the tend-to-underestimate-uncertainty people) are thinking.
Global warming virtually stopped in 1998. This is a big deal. The upward trend in global mean surface temperature (GMST) came way down. The models didn’t predict it and have not been successfully retrofitted to account for it. If GMST doesn’t start inching up again soon, some important climate theories will need to be discarded. So far the IPCC is saying this is just an “hiatus” due to natural variability (“expert judgment, medium confidence”, p. 772). We’ll see. (Cf. “stock-market permabear.”)
While the news coverage remains shrill, the science is actually getting better and more tempered. The news coverage is as shrill as ever and IPCC summaries are still inconsistent committee reports approved by governments. Where the science says “more than half,” the Summary for Policymakers says “dominant.” Oh well. Still, the science is getting better and also more tempered. We now have more and more reliable data. There are fewer highly confident forecasts of imminent disaster. Forecasted rise in sea levels keeps coming down. And about that “abrupt climate change,” AR5 says there is “low confidence and little consensus on the likelihood of such events over the 21st century” (p. 70). Confidence in any man-made “abrupt climate change” in your children’s lifetime is then even lower.
The sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow. AC power cannot be stored. So you can’t use solar and wind generation without also having fully functional conventional power plants for the dark and windless times. No matter how inexpensive you make solar and wind, to use them, you still need them plus completely functioning conventional power plants on stand-by. That is really, really expensive. (That is why electricity rates are going up. Also, of course, the cost of high energy falls disproportionately on the poor.)
Fossil fuels are from Mother Nature’s compost heap. Why do people get freaked out by the sight of oil? It is a natural, organic material.
Reforestation, increased biodiversity, and local farming change the climate. Just as do deforestation, reduced biodiversity, and factory farming. In the last 150 years, New Englanders reduced farming, logging, and leveling. That increased forest coverage from under 40% to about 80%. That changed the climate. Deer, bear, and tick populations are up. So is the bald-eagle population. Is this anthropogenic climate change in New England good or bad?
Fossil fuels eliminate pollution. Pollution is not caused by industrialization. It’s caused by a lot of people living closely together. Humans cannot see in the dark, live in their own excrement, or carry very much. They are prone to countless diseases. They want light at night, clean water, pack vehicles, sewers, clean bed sheets, doctors, safe medicine, printing presses, and universities. And now they want fresh organic food year-round in clean packaging at a local Whole Foods—with a clean paved parking lot. Remember that each pre-industrial one-horsepower vehicle for hauling groceries—a horse—dumps twenty-five pounds of dung and a gallon of urine a day. Now think of a Whole Foods’ parking lot.
Do people not know what they have thanks to low-cost energy? Do children no longer take field trips to dairy plants, factories, and mills? Where do they think recycled paper comes from? Imagine everything we have thanks to pumps, machines, and low-cost energy.
- Toilets, toilet paper, tissues, tampons.
- Fresh water, hot water, cold water, toilets, daily (even more!) showers, sewers.
- Plastic, wood, paper, metal, cloth, brick. Recycled versions of same.
- Food, cooked food, organic food, frozen food.
- Fresh flowers, safe and non-stinky fertilizer, pots, gardening tools.
- Air conditioners, elevators, microwave ovens, ovens, televisions.
- Smartphones, music, movies, concerts by people from another town.
- Light at night. Light that does not stink, soil your clothes, or burn down your house.
- Children that don’t stink. Detergent. Soap.
- Boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses that weren’t born within walking distance of each other.
- Clean clothes, clean dishes, clean underwear, clean toothbrushes, clean bed linens, clean anything.
- Banks, checking accounts, retirement funds, credit cards, ATM machines.
Being immoral and harmful is not enough to justify making something illegal. Even if you show that using incandescent light bulbs is immoral and harmful to millions of people, you are not finished. You haven’t shown that it should be illegal. Saying you love your spouse when you don’t is immoral and harmful. But it is not illegal. Letting people propagate crazy religious ideas can wipe out whole civilizations, and has, and will. That alone doesn’t justify forcefully stopping those people.
Mother Nature has no right to be left alone. There is nothing “good” or “bad” for a planet. The only thing to worry about is what is good for people.
People of the past did not violate your rights. When people a few hundred years ago decided to ruin Boston Harbor’s aquatic ecosystem with all that landfill, they did not violate your rights or mine. Maybe some of our great-…great-grandparents’, but not ours. Be mad at those Bostonians for making the city they wanted, if you’d like. But you can’t say they violated some right of yours in 2014 to have the Boston Harbor ecosystem that existed in 1714. And if what you do now moves the Florida coastline, people in 2314 might be mad at you, but you will not now be violating the rights they will have in the future.
If you cannot justify forcing people to do what you want, convince them. Start a philanthropic campaign. If you can’t stand the thought of religious fanatics wiping out Western civilization, teach. Don’t outlaw churches. And if you think people’s use of air conditioners is immoral and harmful, convince them to go without.
Make the most of the lowest cost, most reliable source of energy you can find. Use it to make the world as prosperous and healthy as you can for yourself and those you care about. Give to your grandchildren what otherwise wouldn’t be available until their children’s lifetime. Don’t worry if they won’t be able to live where you live.
Worry about the local climate the same way you worry about the weather. Which, if you live in America, need not be very much. Go ahead and reforest, eat local produce, and recycle locally if you want. Don’t worry about effects on the local climate, or the global one.
Make your world a better place. If you want to help poor people deal with climate-related danger, then go help them deal with climate-related danger. Manufacture, donate, and ship to them water pumps and electric generators and modern construction materials. Use cargo planes and ships to get it to them as soon as possible. Get them the same low-cost energy you have. Help them have anything you have—non-toxic nighttime light and clean water and clean surgeons and plastic toothbrushes and fresh organic produce at Whole Foods. In the process, the benefit to them will far outweigh any harm you could cause by changing their great-grandchildren’s climate. Their great-grandchildren and yours will be glad you advanced the material conditions of their lives and did not worry about where they’d have to live to get the weather they like.
John P. McCaskey
Over on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/. . .), Greg Morgan posted this comment: “Given other things that you have written, when I read your post I was reminded of the saying that one’s philosopher’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens. The relevant conditional that I had in mind was the one that you seem to be arguing for: If one adopts the political philosophy that John does, then one should ignore long term (>one generation) environmental effects of our current energy industry. You use this conditional for modus ponens. I would be more inclined to argue using modus tollens.”
John P. McCaskey, reply to John P. McCaskey
And I reply:Indeed. But we also don’t get to say, “Oh, your argument must be wrong, for it implies something whose opposite I take for granted.” The philosopher has to justify his or her premises—in modus ponens or modus tollens.
I start not from political philosophy but from a moral principle: You have a moral responsibility to make your world a better place. (And I mine, and he his, etc.) For justification, see Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in combination with my blog post “Selfish Things to Do in Life.”
If you want to start an argument with the premise that someone’s rights can be violated by actions taken centuries earlier—that for example the Hobokeners who connected the island to the mainland violated the rights of someone today (pray tell, whose?)—you’ve set yourself a tall order.
GJM, reply to John P. McCaskey
I too have a moral principle in mind: that we collectively have a responsibility to the next generation(s) to not degrade the environment and thereby diminish their lives. I think we need to have some laws beyond those that protect individual rights. As I have put it in another exchange with you, I think we should have laws that bar individuals and corporations from significantly destroying public goods like air and water. Significant carbon pollution for example might not violate any one person’s rights (or it might, but for the sake of argument let’s say it doesn’t), but it will harm, even minimally, millions of people. For this reason we need to regulate large emitters of carbon.
Behind our differences I think is a difference in political philosophy. Do you think there can be law that is not justified by appeal to individual rights but is nonetheless justified? I think there are such laws. Here is one example, I think it should be illegal to torture wild animals. I think such a law can be justified by appeal to the harm done to animals without such a law. But human rights are not part of the justification because it concerns animals that are not any one person’s property. What do you think?
John P. McCaskey, reply to GJM
There is no such thing as collective responsibility, any more than there is such a thing as collective thought or collective digestion. The concept precludes it. The concept depends on agency and agency is individual. The only people who talk like that feel a personal responsibility to force themselves on others.
The legitimate instances of what you call “destroying public goods” are handled just fine by well-written tort and property laws.
“For this reason, we need to . . .”
No, absolutely not. Saying something is immoral, harmful to millions of people, harmful to millions of animals, gut-wrenchingly disgusting, or a cause of the imminent collapse of western civilization is not a complete argument for making that thing illegal. As I said in the original post, “Letting people propagate crazy religious ideas can wipe out whole civilizations, and has, and will. That alone doesn’t justify forcefully stopping those people. . . . If you can’t stand the thought of religious fanatics wiping out Western civilization, teach. Don’t outlaw churches.” If you want to appeal to harmfulness or immorality, you need another step in your argument, one that identifies the proper role of government. “Oh yuk! That would be terrible!” is not enough.
GJM, reply to John P. McCaskey
Your dismissal of collective responsibility is too quick. There are many philosophers working on explicating a notion of collective responsibility. And even if the concept of responsibility did not extend to collectives at one point, we have some freedom to extend it if we think it is useful. I take it that you think corporations have responsibilities. Our concepts are are not static.
Saying something is harmful to millions of people is not a “complete argument” for making something illegal, but it is a good prima facie reason and if the harm is severe enough we can justifiably allow our democratically elected officials to make it illegal. (And you are right that there is probably a view about the proper role of govt behind these convictions) This is why it is illegal for individuals to have heroin, nuclear weapons, bioweapons, etc. I think it is also a good reason to outlaw the hunting of endangered species. Species extinction harms everyone a little.
I am not a lawyer but I don’t think tort law and property law do a good job of protecting public goods. Are you thinking that an owner of land near the coast that is being lost to increasing sea levels can (and should?) successfully sue big oil and big coal? I don’t think this is realistic. We need smart regulations like those that stopped ozone depletion or cleaned up the smog in LA. Not everything can be solved from the bottom up.