31 May 2007

Don't Let Your Morality Get In The Way Of Doing What's Right

Bryan Appleyard steers a middle course on anthropogenic global warming, which both sides see as treason to the human race. I'm mostly an agw skeptic, although I'm willing to admit that it is possible that the globe is warming (mean global temperature is a completely meaningless concept), that it is our "fault" (although I can't imagine what difference that makes to anyone for whom the environment is not a religion) and that it is bad (although in actual human experience, warmer has always been better). The problem is that, once you've jumped through the hoops necessary to conclude that agw is happening and is bad, you're forced to conclude that it's inevitable. If our relatively small contribution to atmospheric greenhouse gases has taken us over the tilting point, there really is nothing we can do to stop the cascade now.

We can, of course, always make it worse by trying to help, which brings us to Kyoto.

There are those of us who suspect that the acceptance of agw by a certain portion of the population relies less on careful weighing of the science and more on a desire for a weapon with which to attack the west, liberal capitalism and, very specifically, the United States of America. Even if agw is true, clearly there were people predisposed to believe in it because they believe that a majority will believe that it must be fought and that fighting it requires adopting the political program urged in any event by the predisposed. Among these people are the Greens and the French [must not make joke about daily bathing] who saw Kyoto as a handy vehicle for running over the Americans.

To its credit, the Clinton Administration, and Al Gore specifically, fought back. Where Kyoto says, "Thou shalt throttle thy economy," the Administration tried to substitute relatively painless methods that might actually make a difference. These were, briefly, we should be able to buy credits from the former Communist nations, whose economies had been throttled already, we should get credit for reforesting and we should get credit for funding pollution controls in the Third World. (We've discussed these previously here.) The first two are kind of silly. Being able to buy credits from Russia was useful in bribing Russia to participate, but -- since their industries had already collapsed -- didn't subtract any CO2 from the atmosphere. Reforestation not only is happening anyway, but is a questionable means of taking CO2 from the atmosphere.

But funding air pollution control in the Third World is easy, cheap and beneficial even if agw is nonsense. We know how to do it, we've proven the technology on ourselves and our air is cleaner than its been in ages. The health benefits of clean air are clear and widespread. In the absence of these programs, China is about to overtake the US as the world's greatest source of greenhouse gases while the US has become more energy efficient (that is, it takes us less energy every year to produce each dollar of GDP).

There is only one catch: cleaning the air of particulate matter makes global warming worse.


Bret said...

"cleaning the air of particulate matter makes global warming worse."

Not if you assume that we were eventually going to remove particulate matter anyway. Might as well do it now when a bit of extra warmth doesn't much matter anyway.

Note that some scientists are actually proposing adding particulates the upper atmosphere to cool things. I think that could be a strategy eventually, but at the moment, I would like the extra warmth. The thing about warming is that we can always make the world colder. If the world were naturally cooling (and that would be bad) we'd have a heck of a time making it warmer.

Susan's Husband said...

You can't possibly be serious about "Clinton Administration, and Al Gore specifically, fought back". They signed the Kyoto Protocols, despite near unamimous opposition from the Senate. And even after that famous vote, Clinton and Gore acted as if the USA was a signatory, rather than openly stating it was a dead letter. Even now you see articles all the time that claim President Bush was the (singular) person who rejected the Kyoto Protocol.

Harry Eagar said...

It might be a catch if the next ice age hasn't already started. But if the ice age is coming, it's a feature.

(If the next ice age has started, we would not be able to detect it, as the annual change would be measured in thousandths of a degree per year on average, but some years would still be warmer not cooler. It is not possible, in principle, to know whether the world is warming or cooling until it warms or cools.)

Appleyard is modest about his lack of standing to hold an opinion, but not nearly modest enough.

He sez: 'the balance of evidence is overwhelming - the planet will warm, probably catastrophically, over the next century'

That's just silly, even from a layman who, obviously, hasn't made the slightest effort to examine the evidence.

Oroborous said...

The comments at the linked post are quite reasonable, which is to say, highly skeptical of AGW.

David said...

SH: Only the tip of my tongue was in my cheek. In the end, the Clinton Administration didn't do badly on Kyoto at all. They signed it so that we could be a signatory and stay involved in the negotiations of the next stage. The Bush Administration has basically kept their strategy in place while pushing separate voluntary schemes on the actual polluters.

The real problem with the Clinton Administration and Kyoto was the same as with the ICC and Iraq -- the Europeans overestimated what the US would pay in order to avoid being isolated and unilateral. Remember that all the negotiators know that, in terms of stopping global warming (all caveats apply), Kyoto is meaningless. The point was simply to get buy-in at the symbolic stage so that the next rounds could bite. The point of the Senate resolution was to give the US negotiators a whupping stick to use in the negotiations: "If you want buy-in from us, you'll have to give us the following...."

As it happened, France was more interested in isolating us (and promoting the EU as a rival superpower) than in actually achieving something. France, having gotten its special treatment (the point of choosing 1990 as the base-line year was to pre-date the collapse of the old communist economies, which automatically gives Russia and the EU a big headstart on "reducing" ghg emissons), made sure we didn't get any special treatment even where -- as noted in the post -- it would have been a good idea independent of agw.

joe shropshire said...

Appleyard seems like a pleasant, mainstream, don't-rock-the-boat sort of fellow. If the balance of evidence is overwhelming is the impression he carries, then that would suggest that the science of AGW is as good as it needs to be, in order to do what it was intended to do.