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December 18, 2009



Sadly, it requires quite a bit more energy to cool homes than to heat them. Fortunately it seems most likely that the warming would cause chronic famine in warmer areas so that eventually all the people who would have wanted to cool their homes no longer feel that desire. In fact, their resource usage will drop by 100% across the board!

Nathan Smith

"Famine" consists not in the inability to grow food, but in the inability to gain ownership over it. A country that lacks the capacity to grow enough food to feed itself can do very well, thank you: see Hong Kong, Singapore, Great Britain. And of course nutrition has been improving steadily in recent decades and there has perhaps never been a time in history when humanity had less grounds to worry about hunger, particularly since birthrates are declining everywhere. Nato's dystopian hints, then, are rather encouraging, since the idea that global warming will cause mass starvation in poor countries is so implausible that if that's what we're supposed to be afraid of, we can rest easy.

A more serious threat might be rising oceans due to global warming is a little more serious since a good deal of valuable capital is located in low-elevation areas, but it's not as if there's a global shortage of land either. I've yet to hear a version of this story that comes very close to making sense. But the quasi-religious character of environmentalism is an independent reason for taking global warming seriously.

Nathan Smith

Actually, if I'll be permitted to put on a Keynesian hat for a moment, if global warming did lead to a flooding of some major cities, that could serve as a great economic stimulus, kind of like WWII without all the death. Just as the post-WWII Germans and Japanese prospered by rebuilding their cities, just as fin-de-siecle Chicago prospered by rebuilding after the Chicago fire, the building of dikes and/or rebuilding of cities flooded by rising oceans would provide lots of employment, and trigger valuable technological upgrading. Unfortunately, it's not likely to happen. Climategate has more or less exposed it as another groupthink/appeal-to-the-apocalyptic-instinct false alarm. I was afraid to say so, but the religious zeal with which people embraced it always made me suspicious.


I was merely being satirical, of course. Famines can always be averted in democracies with sufficiently free press. I won't attempt to seriously survey the consequences of reshuffling the climate zones on the planet and raising the sea level relatively rapidly, but suffice it to say that I cannot face it with the same blithe and amazingly unconservative confidence that a sudden large change is no real danger. Nor can I join him in his convenient dismissal of all climate science because of "Climategate".

Folks like to quote Feynman:
"We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It's a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It's interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan's, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn't they discover that the new number was higher right away? It's a thing that scientists are ashamed of--this history--because it's apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan's, they thought something must be wrong--and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan's value they didn't look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.

This illustrates, of course, the ways in which scientists can fool themselves and each-other. But also embedded in the story is that science did eventually get it right. It seems foolish at this point to grasp onto such straws so as to continue denying AGW and ignoring future externalities to current economic activity. I don't discount the very plausible possibility that in the future we'll be able to avert the effects of AGW for far less that the cost of doing so now, but I can't see any way to pretend that it's not a problem.

Nathan Smith

The Millikan example is qualitatively different from Climategate. No one is morally invested in electrons having a particular weight. It inspires no charges of Holocaust denial. It does not substitute for religion. Nor did the active conspiracy to mask the facts exposed at the University of East Anglia bear much resemblance to the ordinary tentativeness-groupthink of science. It's not a reason to dismiss all climate science, but it's certainly a reason to discount it, and to give new respect to those climate scientists who stood against the consensus. The contempt these scientists were treated was always wholly inappropriate for scientific inquiry and a sign that there was something rotten in climate science. But we didn't know how rotten.

I'm not out to deny AGW, I just don't really care, since I think it's pretty clear that the costs of adapting to a warmer world are small to trivial relative to the benefits of long-run economic growth, while the costs of the main proposed measures, e.g., major emissions cuts, are prohibitive. I read a bit of the IPCC report a while back and recall something along the lines of "to stop global warming, we'll have to settle for lower GDP, but that's OK, because happiness research shows that higher GDP doesn't really make people happier." To say the statement was astoundingly ignorant is too flattering. A merely ignorant person might have the humility to defer to the professional consensus of economists (and for that matter, laymen!) that GDP growth is good, rather than grabbing an obscure literature within economics and megalomaniacally overreading it so as to dismiss, quite casually, the core of the discipline of economics-- efficient markets, revealed preference, etc.-- as well as all the efforts of individuals to better their situations in life, as meaningless and misguided. I didn't conclude that the IPCC's science was wrong; I just concluded that they were preternaturally idiotic whenever they stepped outside their area of expertise and that anything they said must be rigorously filtered to make sure they weren't passing off their utterly worthless economics for their presumably competent climate science. Climategate suggests that their climate science shouldn't be trusted either, and that AGW is probably another of the episodes of groundless alarmism which have been a recurrent feature of modern times (widespread fears of degeneration, which Hitler exploited, are another example). But if AGW turns out to be true, that's fine too. I really don't see how a rational and historically literate person can make the sense of the notion that, even though mankind has migrated to and flourished in a vast array of climates from the Sahel to Siberia to the Andes of Peru to Manitoba to Scandinavia etc., a 2C or 3C rise in global temperatures would be some kind of apocalyptic catastrophe. To believe that you just have to regard the prehuman natural order as something sacred, to block your brain from asking the question "What's the big deal?"

re: "unconservative"

Yeah, it's funny how that word is used. In the US "conservative" is connected to the free market, an extremely innovative and progressive institution; it's really the liberals, like Barack Obama who wants to drag us back to the good old 1970s, who are conservative in the sense of looking to the past and preservation for preservation's sake. Of course, man has been changing his environment since before the dawn of recorded history. We're going to stop now?


"the active conspiracy to mask the facts exposed at the University of East Anglia"

Oh? I haven't seen anything pointing to that. I've seen construals like that, but the ones I've seen have been a combination of misunderstanding and assumption.

"man has been changing his environment since before the dawn of recorded history. We're going to stop now?"

Well, yes, but sometimes it's been a disaster for us. I don't think this will be anything like an existential threat, but there has to be a point at which additional AGW costs more than its aversion. Where is that point? I don't know, but I think it's quite plausible that it's in the ballpark of where the IPCC guys are headed. Not that most of the various protocols are well designed and avert AGW in the most efficient way - regulations are a separate problem on which the IPCC are absolutely unqualified to comment. It's also hard to quantify what it would really cost to adapt to AGW. Neither are the projections of cost likely to be very accurate - Clean Air Act compliance has consistently turned out to be very much less expensive than originally anticipated because technology evolves quickly when there's a profit motive.

I have Bjorn Lomborg's Skeptical Environmentalist on my bookshelf, and I have recommended it to no few people because I thought it brilliantly distilled many of my suspicions about the environmentalist approach common then. But two things have happened since then: first, the effects of AGW have become better understood and somewhat more dire, and second, the center of gravity in the environmentalist movement has shifted markedly away from the environmentalism-as-religion folks. I don't commonly encounter people who care what Greenpeace thinks any more. The hippies are out, and the environmental economists are in.


It's worth noting that a third and final review has once again cleared the East Anglia scientists, convincing even those ill-disposed toward them:
Key phrase: "The review also shows that the IPCC's selection process was rigorous, that papers weren't improperly excluded and that Jones didn't act alone to shut them out, and couldn't have."
Which is exactly how these things are supposed to be.

a more comprehensive account:

So it would seem that "climategate" has not provided any real reason to believe that climate scientists have gone off the rails after all.

In other news, my crowing about how much better the environmental movement has gotten has proved overly optimistic:
Also, those of us on "my" side of the issue are still not making the case very well:
And finally I did some calculations of subsidies in transportation that aren't appropos of anything but are still surprising and (I think) interesting:

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