Sunday, June 11, 2017

There is no scientific consensus on climate change policy

One of the symptoms of statism – the often implicit belief that the state is the center of human society – is our tendency to conflate opinions on a subject, with opinions on how to govern that subject.

For example, lots of people agree it’s wrong to frequent prostitutes, spank your kids, or do hard drugs. There’s nothing wrong with those beliefs per se, and I often share them.  But statism is that epidemic disease of the mind which causes people, without really thinking about it, to assume from this that such activities ought to be illegal as well.  This does not follow, and very often it proves tragically unwise.

What the statist fails to see, in such cases, is that the law is not an authoritative signpost of right and wrong, so much as a tool designed to achieve a certain goal.  This tool is violence, which makes it powerful, clumsy and morally problematic in equal measure.  It also makes the field of political science distinct from the field of philosophy.  Determining the best policies involves not only forming your moral opinions, but also analyzing the likeliest consequences of various courses of action, and then evaluating those consequences according to your moral framework.

With that in mind, perhaps you have heard there is a “scientific consensus” on climate change.  This is arguably true; that is, some high percentage of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing (specifically, that it’s getting gradually warmer, and on track to reach at least 2 or 3 degrees C warmer than pre-industrial levels by 2100) and that human activity is contributing to that change (specifically, through the emission of greenhouse gases).

But that’s not the same as a scientific consensus on climate change POLICY.  Before you consider your climate policy preferences “on the side of the scientific consensus,” you need to be able to answer all of the following questions *objectively* (that is, you must answer them NOT with one climatologist’s quotes and opinions, but with objective sources that *essentially all of the experts* agree on):

1.     What are the likeliest consequences of manmade global warming if it is left unchecked? By when will those consequences occur, and how likely are they relative to different sets of possible consequences (for better or worse)?

2.     What course(s) of action would be required to prevent or mitigate those adverse consequences with a high degree of certainty?

3.     What are the tradeoffs of taking those courses of action in all relevant fields (economics, sociology, politics, philosophy, etc?)

4.     For which courses of action do the likeliest benefits outweigh the likeliest costs?

I am no expert on climatology, but so far as I know, there is nothing remotely approaching 97% “consensus” on any of these five questions – and certainly not on question four.  Perhaps I’m wrong!  If you’ve actually studied the data on those questions yourself, and fancy you can answer them objectively, please show me that data.  I’m also troubled by the possibility of climate catastrophe, and I’d sincerely love to see any data which narrows the range of uncertain outcomes.

But if you haven’t, and you’ve just heard somebody on Facebook (or
Twitter…) shouting about how “97% of scientists agree climate change is real!” and taken it on face value that this means environmentalist policymakers should get a blank check, you are no more serious a student of climate science than any of the people you deride as “deniers.” And furthermore, if you repeat that claim yourself without knowing where it came from, and then make that same aforementioned “rookie mistake” of statists everywhere by using it to agitate for ever-greener policies without any quantifiable assessment of what specifically they will accomplish and at what cost, you blowing more hot air than the climate will ever have.

Not everyone on the left is guilty of this, mind you. And, even those who are may well be exaggerating in service of a good cause.  Just because there’s no consensus behind a policy proposal doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.  The alarmism may prove prudent.

But much of what I do on this blog is umpire the public discourse, and unfortunately, it seems to me most of the people currently parading themselves as the champions of measured, objective scientific analysis are no better versed in the hard data of it all than those they lampoon as scientific ignoramuses.  They do not scrutinize exactly what the scientific “consensus” says are the likeliest consequences of global warming, nor what it would take to prevent those consequences with a high degree of certainty, nor what the tradeoffs are to taking that course of preventative action. They do not do the legwork required to quantify what’s at stake first, and then make value judgements accordingly.  Rather, they make their value judgment first, seek out a narrative which flatters those value judgments, and then and excitedly regurgitate any empirical tidbit they encounter which supports that narrative.

If I’m right about this, it makes most environmentalists just the same as their conservative opponents.  A friend of mine recently made light of this similarity, writing:

“Environmentalism is an anti-science religious movement. If you believe that the Earth was once a Garden of Eden before we corrupted it with sinful exploitation of resources, and that we're going to be punished with environmental collapse on judgement day, fine. But lots of us don't believe that. So let's keep church and state separate.”  

Maybe that was too broad a brushstroke, but the similarities remain.  Just as the story of Christ is something people believe without proof, many environmentalists are driven by faith in a narrative they haven’t much investigated themselves, but find compatible with their cognitive biases against global capitalism and therefore easy to accept.  Just like the church, a group of trusted authority figures make a living refuting the skeptics, assuring the masses that this is true, and warning them of the fire and brimstone to come if our sinful society doesn’t change its ways.

In other words, there may be a consensus on climate change – it is just not what left-wing activists keep saying it is.  They have rhetorically hijacked the consensus which actually exists, and portrayed it as the consensus they WANT to exist; to say “97% of climatologists agree climate change is real, manmade and ongoing” is not the same as saying “97% of climatologists agree drastic carbon reduction is urgently needed now to stave off irreversible environmental catastrophe.”  The 97% figure became so pervasive not because it has any implications for policy on its own, but because it’s a NUMBER; because it disguises the almost spiritual origin of Greenpeace policy preferences as a rigid analysis of temperature spreadsheets; because it provides the Marxist distrust of worker “alienation” in favor of local, organic, small-scale production of everything with the empirically-backed moral imperative it has always lacked. 

If you are an Apologetic of the Faith, perhaps you will counter with a sort of Pascal’s Wager: the idea that in the presence of uncertainty, the only responsible course of action is to avoid [environmental] catastrophe.  This might be reasonable, IF catastrophe were only possible in one direction.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.

I am no expert on economics either, but I have studied it enough to know that the price of energy directly impacts the price of literally everything else on the market.  As such, it is directly associated with the standard of living for billions of people on this planet.  For some of these people, the price of energy is quite literally a matter of life and death.  The exact economic consequences of an immediate, large-scale shift away from fossil fuels are as hotly disputed as the environmental ones are; there is no consensus on either question.  But there is ample concern that prohibiting fossil fuels now – AFTER the West has gotten rich off them, but before the developing world has had time to follow suit, and before the reliable/cost-viable alternatives are ready – might very well plunge the poorest people on earth into an untold level of further suffering.  It might undo the decades of progress humanity has made in the fight against extreme poverty and bring wealth inequality to unprecedented levels.  And crucially, it might not even prevent many of the environmental calamities that some have warned against.

So which is the catastrophe we ought to wager against? Are you so certain economic disaster won’t happen, and so certain climate change disaster will happen, that handing global governments massive control over our everyday purchasing decisions immediately is really “the only responsible course of action”?  Unless you yourself have studied the latest science AND the latest economic forecasts in detail, it seems to me you shouldn’t be.

When the stakes are so incredibly high in BOTH directions, there is no such thing as erring on the side of caution. Any course of action not backed by rigid cost-benefit analysis is reckless superstition.  I am not qualified to crunch all the probabilities required to make that sound cost-benefit analysis.  Chances are, you aren’t either.  Every one of us is entitled to an opinion on the matter, but nobody’s entitled to lie about which debates “science” has settled, and which it has not.

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