August 27, 2007
The New Denialism
Ross may well be right that in Jim Manzi's manifesto on a sensible rightwing strategy on global warming, "conservatives will find a sensible blueprint for moving from the denialist fringe to the political mainstream, and liberals will get a taste of how a wised-up, heads-out-of-the-sand Right could kick their ass on the issue." But he should be more specific: Manzi's approach may help the right kick political ass on the issue -- it's global warming as little more than a political football. And that's a damn irresponsible way of approaching climate change.
Manzi's strategy is, basically, let's do very, very little. Under Manzi's set of assumptions, that's perfectly fine, as under Manzi's set of assumptions, global warming isn't very bad, and we don't need to do much. Under most other sets of assumptions, global warming is very bad, and the costs of a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade program, are very slight in comparison to the damage they'll forestall. But the change from "it doesn't exist" to "it's not very bad, and can be fixed with no pain," is not a change from "the denialist fringe' to "the political mainstream" in anything but rhetoric. It's a kinder, gentler denialism, based on exactly the same dispute over severity, with exactly the same effects. Namely, if Manzi's wrong, hundreds of millions of people are fucked. Nice gamble, that. On the bright side, it's possible that Manzi's strategy will, in the short-term, help the Republican Party do marginally better in American politics.
One of the reason that I've become more progressive rather than less as I've gotten older is this exact reality- the level to which the right denies uncomfortable truths. The left certainly has its own problems, but compared to denial, there is nothing more dangerous. How can you deal with a probelm if you are busy placing blinders on? Quite frankly however I think those blinders are endemic to the American public. Have you tried to talk to non political involved people about this? Choice comments I love hearing includes "well, but the science is still out on this" or "every few years they come up with some doomsday, first it's this, then it's that, and it never happens" or "Well it's something my grandchildren may have to deal with." And on and on it goes. These aren't conservatives who say these things. That to me is the bigger problem. Not just here but on a multitude of issues- the problem is apathy. That in combination with denial is what so dangerous.
Posted by: akaison | Aug 27, 2007 9:05:21 AM
This probably isn't the best place to plug TNR articles, but yeah, even CEI and all the other standard-issue denier groups are taking this line these days. They go from "not happening" to "not us" to "not so bad" to "look! China!" Of course, they're still happy to sow doubt on the science at every turn, all while insisting that they're not...
Posted by: brad plumer | Aug 27, 2007 9:20:32 AM
Good to see Ezra back!
I have to agree that I would like to see Republicans take global warming a lot more seriously than they do today. Not only would it be good for their party, but it would be good for the country, as you need pointed debate for topics such as this. Plus, there are sensible ways we can address the issue today that Democrats are going to avoid (read carbon tax).
In general, it’s nice that liberals have take on the charge for addressing global warming, but it seems like most of their big initiative are worthless. Kyoto is a nice political concept but useless in real terms; raising CAFÉ standards has some value though considerable less than using a carbon tax (I think democrats/liberals support this option because they think it place the costs on big, bad Corporate America and not on the “hard working middle class”). If the Republicans can act as an involved counterbalance (key word here being involved), then I think we can expect to see more sensible debate and policy.
I have to agree with Akaison in his comments re: public apathy. Part of this is inherent to the issue: people don’t think they can directly affect the outcome, so why get involved.
Posted by: DM | Aug 27, 2007 10:53:55 AM
You know what a sensible right wing strategy would be on global warming?
The same strategy they had for the collapse of the Savings & Loan industry:
Admit there's a problem, have you & I the ordinary schmucks pay for the bailout, and make sure that their well-connected buddies get whatever investments and technology ownership that they can from the new Green industries.
I'm telling you, the big GW fight is not going to be on whether it's real and merits a global response, but (a) Who pays for it; (b) Who controls how its responded to and who the response affects; and (c) Who profits from the massive expenditures about to be undertaken.
This could be one of the largest changes to our economy of the past century; you don't think the ultra-wealthiest corporations and investors won't do all they can to socialize the costs and privatize the benefits, while minimizing the regulations they face?
Posted by: El Cid | Aug 27, 2007 10:57:22 AM
Yes to what El Cid said. They are already doing this. Look at what's going on with insurance companies on this issue.
Posted by: akaison | Aug 27, 2007 11:10:38 AM
Having read your blog previously, I’m surprised to find your reactions to my article neither balanced nor insightful.
You say that “Manzi's strategy is, basically, let's do very, very little”.
Actually, I proposed a pretty involved program that I estimated in my article would have incremental costs of “single digit billions per year”. I think that neither the substance of these programs (obviously more important) nor the cost would be described as “very, very little” by any fair-minded observer.
You say that “Under Manzi's set of assumptions, that's perfectly fine, as under Manzi's set of assumptions, global warming isn't very bad, and we don't need to do much.”
I spent the first third of my article making the points that AGW is real, but that no reliable forecasts for future magnitude exist. I then proceeded to say, OK but let’s assume that the IPCC consensus estimates are exactly correct. I used (and referenced) the IPCC’s estimates for climate sensitivity to CO2, warming rates and global economic impacts. These aren’t MY assumptions at all; they’re the IPCC’s.
You say that “Under most other sets of assumptions, global warming is very bad, and the costs of a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade program, are very slight in comparison to the damage they'll forestall. “
Your link references the Wiki entry for the Stern Report. The Stern Report is an economic analysis of the trade-offs involved in addressing global warming. So the assumptions that are presumably under debate in this sentence are not scientific, but economic. You might have mentioned the most important assumption that undergirds all of the deviation between Stern’s conclusions and those of mainstream economists: that the social discount rate should be effectively zero (0.01%). One could debate this point, but it has very little to do with global warming. And by the way, would place you as firmly outside the economic mainstream as the “there is no global warming” guys are outside of the scientific mainstream.
You say that “Namely, if Manzi's wrong, hundreds of millions of people are fucked. “ (Does your mother read this blog?)
But you entirely ignore the point I made at length in the article that one could make this statement about ANY threat. Maybe there is a huge, currently undetected meteor headed for the Earth right now – quick, let’s spend $1 trillion dollars building a defensive shield! There is no escaping the need to estimate odds and costs when facing threats. As I mentioned above, and went into detail about in the article, the costs of the kind of emissions abatements that are being proposed to address this problem (‘80% by 2050’) dwarf what even the IPCC estimates future costs will be even if AGW does happen at the level and timing that they forecast.
Posted by: Jim Manzi | Aug 27, 2007 11:38:41 AM
Ditto, for El Cid. & akaison
Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 27, 2007 11:43:03 AM
Any response to global warming that doesn't involve large-scale use of nuclear power is simply not serious.
It cannot be said often enough: We currently generate 50 percent of our electrical power with COAL. And coal is about the dirtiest fuel in existence, both in terms of gross pollution and in terms of CO2 emissions.
Nuclear power is the only proven CO2-free alternative that can make up this large of a difference. Conservation alone can't reduce our power use by 50 percent, or anything like it. Wind, tidal, and hydroelectric power won't do it, though they may help on the margins. Rooftop-based solar power could be useful for reducing the load on the power grid during summertime (especially by air conditioners), and I would be in favor of some subsidies to encourage this. But, again, we're talking about marginal sources here.
Nuclear power has been safely used in France, Canada, and Japan for decades. The turn away from it in the United States was due to Naderite superstition, detached from any actual risks. We should be building breeder reactors and shutting down old, dirty coal plants as fast as we can. If it means running over a few deluded Greens with bulldozers, so be it. They deserve it for what they did to us in 2000.
Posted by: Josh G. | Aug 27, 2007 11:48:53 AM
Strangely, major power generation companies have been heavily backing increased spending and development on efficiency, which they accurately describe as the "fifth fuel".
Nuclear power seems a horrendously inefficient way of generating clean power per dollar, although it may have to be considered.
I wish this were France, or Japan, in which case I might trust our nuclear regulators and budget estimators more than the distance I could throw them, but this isn't, and we'll get another round of "too cheap to meter" nonsense and 'we promise this plant will be built in 2 years for less than $3 billion' when it will be 10 years at $40 billion.
...listen to a proposal being aired by Jim Rogers, the chairman and chief executive of Duke Energy, and recently filed with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. (Duke Energy is headquartered in Charlotte.) It's called "save-a-watt," and it aims to turn the electricity/utility industry upside down by rewarding utilities for the kilowatts they save customers by improving their energy efficiency rather than rewarding them for the kilowatts they sell customers by building more power plants.
Rogers' proposal is based on three simple principles. The first is that the cheapest way to generate clean, emissions-free power is by improving energy efficiency. Or, as he puts it, "The most environmentally sound, inexpensive and reliable power plant is the one we don't have to build because we've helped our customers save energy."
Second, we need to make energy efficiency something that is as "back of mind" as energy usage. If energy efficiency depends on people remembering to do 20 things on a checklist, it's not going to happen at scale.
Third, the only institutions that have the infrastructure, capital, and customer base to empower lots of people to become energy efficient are the utilities, so they are the ones who need to be incentivized to make big investments in efficiency that can be accessed by every customer.
The only problem is that, historically, utilities made their money by making large-scale investments in new power plants, whether coal or gas or nuclear. As long as a utility could prove to its regulators that the demand for that new plant was there, the utility got to pass along the cost, and then some, to its customers. Rogers' save-a-watt concept proposes to change all of that.
"The way it would work is that the utility would spend the money and take the risk to make its customers as energy efficient as possible," he explained. That would include installing devices in your home that would allow the utility to adjust your air-conditioners or refrigerators at peak usage times. It would include plans to incentivize contractors to build more efficient homes with more efficient boilers, heaters, appliances and insulation. It could even include partnering with a factory to buy the most energy-efficient equipment or with a family to winterize their house.
"Energy efficiency is the 'fifth fuel' - after coal, gas, renewables, and nuclear," said Rogers. "Today, it is the lowest-cost alternative and is emissions-free. It should be our first choice in meeting our growing demand for electricity, as well as in solving the climate challenge."
What a crazy Green nutball, that Thomas Friedman, quoting the Duke Energy executive. Damn you, Billionaire Scion Friedman for giving us Nader!
Posted by: El Cid | Aug 27, 2007 12:39:23 PM
the sunrise powerlink...the controversial energy "super-highway" being proposed by san diego gas and electric, is the kind of planning i think we can expect to see in the future to accomodate the population swells.
....it will leave a big footprint, and i think it is the first "energy highway" that will be permitted to intrude in the sacred state and national parklands.
...if the sunrise powerlink comes to pass, the legislation can change the face of parkland everywhere.
nothing will be inviolate...
and yet, imagine the future energy needs of the state of california. staggering to consider.
....on a more heartening note, some beautiful land i have in colorado, is located in a valley where a new project just broke ground to power the whole area with a new photovoltaic solar power plant.
...it will provide energy and employment to the area.
this is being done by sun edison and excel energy.
.....the sunrise power link and the alamosa photovoltaic solar power plant...both very interesting to read about, as they both describe energy strategies for the future.
Posted by: jacqueline | Aug 27, 2007 1:35:56 PM
I was offended by the utterly duplicitous manner in which Manzi article blames climate scientists for global climate change:
The climate-modeling community has made real progress, but needs to mature rapidly if we are to use climate models as the basis for trillion-dollar decisions. Today, climate modeling shows all the classic symptoms of poor supervision of smart analysts, including: excessive analytical complexity driven by researcher interest rather than focus on task-at-hand; lack of rigorous validation studies; software-engineering quality standards more appropriate for exploratory research than for reliable predictions; lack of transparent data standards; and an over-weighting of investment in analysis, as opposed to data collection and validation.
That prescription is evidence that Manzi is more interested in "fixing the data to fit the policy" than genuinely understanding the problem. The last time the US did such a wholesale fixing of the data it caused the trillion fiasco in Iraq.
Posted by: ndm | Aug 27, 2007 2:07:24 PM
Manzi is full of crap. Ezra is absolutely right to label this the "new denialism".
The subject of projected climate change and its consequences is enormously complex, but Manzi offers, in place of insight, obstructionism, seasoned with some tired snark aimed at Al Gore. Then, he has the nerve to come here, all righteous in comments, and reiterate his nonsense!
The key issue is framed by Manzi as follows:
"The most frequently discussed methods for forcing the reduction of carbon emissions, and thereby reducing projected global warming, involve a direct or indirect tax on carbon. The theory is that we will sacrifice wealth today by forcing the economy to make less efficient use of resources, but in return enjoy future
benefits because we avoid some of the costs that would have been created by ongoing global warming."
In this frame, the use of the common wealth of the atmosphere for free disposal of carbon, methane, and other pollutants is an "efficient" use of resources. The future catastrophes that follow are costs created by global warming, not by humans.
The several (single-digit) billions Manzi wants to spend are not to abate the rapid addition of greenhouse gases to the atmospheric soup, but to prepare to "adapt" to the consequences.
And, this is where Manzi's game of political three-card monte goes into overdrive.
The prime catastrophe scenario is that of a run-away train, and the prime imperative to intervene to curb greenhouse gas emissions is not driven by the anticipated effects in this century: it is the insight that greenhouse-gas driven climate change can become a run-away train that could overcome the ability of both humans and the planet as a whole to adapt.
Nothing we do to abate greenhouse-gas emissions in the next fifty years is going to have much impact on climate in this century. The course of climate change over the next fifty years is pretty much already determined, by what we have already done, and what we are inexorably committed to doing, by the momentum of economic growth and demographics. And, by extension, even ambitious abatement by 2050 has only a modest impact on projections of effects to 2100.
So, we are going to have to adapt, and how much we have to adapt is not going to be much affected by how much we abate carbon or other greenhouse-gas emissions. There are trade-offs, available, of course, between abatement and adjustment, and, as the technocrats get smarter those kinds of policy debates may gain traction during the course of this century. But, the big picture story in 2007 is that abatement is not about reducing the costs of adjustment, it is about stopping the run-away train.
Manzi is still in denial about the run-away train. And, that's a political problem, that threatens the long-term survival of the human race.
Manzi quotes this blithe IPCC projection: "According to the most recent IPCC Summary for Policymakers, a 4°C increase in temperatures would cause total economic losses of 1 to 5 percent of global
GDP. That’s a lot of money, but it’s hardly Armageddon."
Except that a 4°C warming by 2100, driven by certain levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and rates of new emission, might well be Armageddon. That's a temperature change some responsible scientists have suggested would be above the level necessary to trigger run-away climate change. To put it bluntly, 4°C by 2100 might well make further and truly catastrophic change after 2100 a certainty. So, the world of 2100 might be down 10% of GDP, but on the precipice of total ecological collapse, and an uncontrollable shift to a hot earth equilibrium, in which the whole human population is a few hundred thousand living on the balmy shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 27, 2007 2:08:55 PM
Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
A couple of quick points:
1. I agree with you that externalities (especially time-shifting of costs) are not well-captured by the kind of GDP measurements used to evaluate “efficiency” on a snap-shot basis. That’s why the attempt to understand longer-term effects is so central to this issue, and basic to the methodology of most economic analysis in this area. Hence, the evaluation of the trade-off between loss of consumption today through use of resources that generate fewer material goods for us today vs. the loss of consumption tomorrow later due to the economic costs of global warming.
2. You say that “Except that a 4°C warming by 2100, driven by certain levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and rates of new emission, might well be Armageddon. “
The IPCC A1B forecast that I reference in my article is for 2.8C, not 4C, of warming by 2100. Under this reference case scenario cited in my article, 4C of warming would not be reached until well into the 22nd century. It is at this point that costs are estimated to reach 1 – 5% of GDP. Note that all of these are the IPCC’s numbers, not mine. I will stipulate (as I did in the article) that I think its pure hubris to imagine that we can reliably predict these effects 100 – 200 years into the future by concatenating projections from GCMs (dubious) with global econometric models (totally ludicrous, in my view).
3. You go on to say “That's a temperature change some responsible scientists have suggested would be above the level necessary to trigger run-away climate change. To put it bluntly, 4°C by 2100 might well make further and truly catastrophic change after 2100 a certainty. So, the world of 2100 might be down 10% of GDP, but on the precipice of total ecological collapse, and an uncontrollable shift to a hot earth equilibrium, in which the whole human population is a few hundred thousand living on the balmy shores of the Arctic Ocean.”
As I indicated in my article, The IPCC doesn’t see it this way. Is such a thing “possible”? Do “some scientists” say it might happen? Of course, but climate models (again, according to the formal findings of the IPCC published in May) project no such case by 2100.
Posted by: Jim Manzi | Aug 27, 2007 3:21:31 PM
I was offended by the utterly duplicitous manner in which Manzi article blames climate scientists for global climate change
The quote doesn't indicate that, nor the other things you say. Maybe you noticed that Jim's the CEO of an applied-artificial-intelligence company, so he may have more than just a clue about the computer models.
Then, he has the nerve to come here, all righteous in comments, and reiterate his nonsense!
Shouldn't he respond here? He's responded to several of your points too, but here are a few more comments.
The future catastrophes that follow are costs created by global warming, not by humans.
He doesn't say or imply this.
The several (single-digit) billions Manzi wants to spend are not to abate the rapid addition of greenhouse gases to the atmospheric soup, but to prepare to "adapt" to the consequences.
He also calls for federal investment in better models (which are crucial) and moderate but probably not sufficient carbon mitigation through further implementation and development of existing technology.
Manzi is still in denial about the run-away train.
He addresses this. He argues that we don't know whether there's a runaway train, and that our best projections suggest we have time to get better models to see before we act precipitously. You haven't refuted this, only said that the runaway train scenario may be and might be and that some scientists think ... His point is that such risks aren't well enough established to warrant huge costs to avoid them. There are other potential catastrophes that are equally plausible, but that we aren't willing to greatly disrupt the economy for. We need to show the runaway train risk is likely enough to call for the great costs, which will also hit the poor disproportionately.
Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 27, 2007 4:11:06 PM
look, i think the correct republican line on this was already enunciated by dick cheney:
if there's an even 1.0% chance of a catastrophe of this magnitude, then we have to act on it as though it was guaranteed to happen.
Posted by: kid bitzer | Aug 27, 2007 4:26:41 PM
An excellent resource one can use to learn more about the science behind global climate research and modeling may be found on the Real Climate blog, which is written and commented on by climate scientists.
For those curious about a succinct explanation of CO2's role in our climate, and likely predictions about the various likely impacts of CO2 increases, it may be interesting to begin with this post:
The CO2 problem in 6 easy steps — gavin @ 4:32 PM
We often get requests to provide an easy-to-understand explanation for why increasing CO2 is a significant problem without relying on climate models and we are generally happy to oblige. The explanation has a number of separate steps which tend to sometimes get confused and so we will try to break it down carefully...
...Step 5: Climate sensitivity is around 3ºC for a doubling of CO2
The climate sensitivity classically defined is the response of global mean temperature to a forcing once all the 'fast feedbacks' have occurred (atmospheric temperatures, clouds, water vapour, winds, snow, sea ice etc.), but before any of the 'slow' feedbacks have kicked in (ice sheets, vegetation, carbon cycle etc.). Given that it doesn't matter much which forcing is changing, sensitivity can be assessed from any particular period in the past where the changes in forcing are known and the corresponding equilibrium temperature change can be estimated. As we have discussed previously, the last glacial period is a good example of a large forcing (~7 W/m2 from ice sheets, greenhouse gases, dust and vegetation) giving a large temperature response (~5 ºC) and implying a sensitivity of about 3ºC (with substantial error bars). More formally, you can combine this estimate with others taken from the 20th century, the response to volcanoes, the last millennium, remote sensing etc. to get pretty good constraints on what the number should be. This was done by Annan and Hargreaves (2006), and they come up with, you guessed it, 3ºC.
Converting the estimate for doubled CO2 to a more useful factor gives ~0.75 ºC/(W/m2).
If you review the commentary on these sites, you will notice that there is a rather strong back & forth between the authors & commenters, and there is a good search function, so that you may find if they have addressed questions you may have.
Posted by: El Cid | Aug 27, 2007 4:38:17 PM
RealClimate is an excellent resource – I read basically every post. While they are not an “objective, unbiased” source that sits above the debate - they have a clear point of view - they are real scientists.
The key issue in the paragraph that you cite is this:
"...sensitivity can be assessed from any particular period in the past where the changes in forcing are known and the corresponding equilibrium temperature change can be estimated"
If we lived in a world with only one possible forcing, this would be simple to do. Unfortunately, there are many, many candidates for material forcings, and they all interact with one another and feedbacks in ways that are, at a minimum, not completely understood. This is a classic case of an over-determined problem.
Posted by: Jim Manzi | Aug 27, 2007 6:44:43 PM
This is a classic case of an over-determined problem.
I recognize that this is your argument, but other climate scientists disagree, and argue that they have well taken into account other forcings.
Posted by: El Cid | Aug 27, 2007 6:46:26 PM
Me: Manzi is still in denial about the run-away train.
Sanpete: [Manzi] argues that we don't know whether there's a runaway train, and that our best projections suggest we have time to get better models to see before we act precipitously.
Exactly. Manzi is in denial about the "runaway train". That's what denial looks like: "We don't know if there is a runaway train, and, even if there is one, we have plenty of time."
Manzi does a very good job of playing reasonable (when he isn't spouting National Review snark like a badly behaved junior high geek, that is), but his reasonableness is fundamentally an act of deception in the service of his denial. He denies that he has a drinking problem, he can stop any time, and, meanwhile, he's hiding the booze and trying to disguise his drunkenness.
Global warming is a runaway train. "is"! No one, at present, is at the controls. The present political argument is about whether to build institutions and initiate policies that will put someone at the controls. Even if someone is at the controls, it will not be possible to stop. We do not have that option.
Manzi could drop the denial in his argument, and the rest of what he says would be perfectly sensible and reasonable, but not nearly confusing and destructive enough to warrant publication in the National Review.
The truth is, our "best projections" do NOT suggest we have much of a window of opportunity to take control of the train and slow its acceleration. Quite the contrary. It appears that we have to act fairly decisively over the next 30 years or so, or people in the 22nd and 23rd centuries will be in very deep trouble. Those kinds of time frames for action and consequence are not what we humans are used to, and pose a real challenge to our powers of ethical and economic reasoning.
As to the politics of global warming, Manzi's reactionary politics of stupidity driven by cupidity faces two potent challenges. One is from the earth, itself. Climate change is not the smooth process of the policy projections, and after a long period of below trend temperature rises, we have entered a period of very rapid global temperature rises. The next ten years are going to provide lots of dramatic before-and-after photos, which will make global climate change seem more imminent than it really is likely to prove to be in the very long run. The data, as it comes in, year by year, will be at the extreme, worst-case scenario level of the current IPCC projections. Reality will be showing more than its usual liberal bias.
The other potent challenge will come as global warming becomes a component of a more general concern about the environmental carrying capacity of the earth. Global warming will merge, politically, with peak oil concerns, and with other far more imminent environmental crises, as economic and population growth threaten more immediate catastrophe. The oceans, for example, are well on track toward total ecological collapse by 2050. China is choking on its pollution, etc. The Left won't have to write Hollywood screenplay versions of the consequences of global warming; there will be plenty of footage of other environmental catastrophes on CNN, and for progressives, global warming, peak oil, mass extinction, ecological collapse, poisoned food, poisoned water, poisoned air, and poisoned Barbie dolls all come down to just one problem: the stupidity led by cupidity of Mr. Manzi's patrons.
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