Thursday, September 8, 2011

A game plan for global warming

Recently, a friend at NASA -- after I had been somewhat dismissive of his (and James Hansen's) political acumen -- asked me how I would propose to get a solution to global warming through the American political system.

So ...

1. Prove that the problem exists. "But we've done that!" I hear you complain. No, you haven't. To prove that the problem exists, you need to provide relatively short-term predictions (5-10 yrs) that are proven correct in every particular. Only then can you create confidence in longer term (50-200 yr) predictions. This is a high bar, of course, given the reality of climate science.

2. Get your allies to shut up, part one: weather. There's a fun page that lists everything that anyone has ever blamed on global warming: the warmlist. This is propaganda, and deeply unfair -- but quite effective. The practice seems to be that anytime some unfortunate event occurs in the natural world, someone will attribute it to global warming, and that attribution will show up in the newspapers, thus making global warming look rather silly. (Look, for instance, at the "Atlantic more salty" and "Atlantic less salty" links on the warmlist.) Also, the "cooling trends are mere weather" vs. "warming trends are a result of long-term climate change" arguments are unconvincing (even if true!), and make global warming seem nonfalsifiable.

3. Do the economics. Now, economics is an even less accurate science than climatology, so this will prove a challenge. But if the present cost of mitigation is greater than the future benefit, then mitigation will never occur. (And any forecast must assume that the future world is richer and smarter than the present world, so more expensive fixes later are actually less costly than cheap fixes now.)

4. Consider fairness. Any mitigation effort that maintains the status quo in poor countries will be ignored, being rightly perceived as the West saying to the Rest "I've got mine, Jack." And any mitigation that explicitly disallows the possibility of a Western life to the 6 billion or so who aspire to exactly that will not be popular. For that matter, those in the West will not countenance any diminution in their living standards.

5. Get your allies to shut up, part two: politics. Al Gore, Tom Friedman, James Hansen, and others have lamented the existence of democracy in the West and dreamed of running a Chinese-style totalitarian state ("for a day" -- Friedman) so they could get their preferred policies put in place by fiat. This is not the kind of sentiment that makes it easy to get majority support.

6. Squash the watermelons. "Watermelon" is a term of abuse directed at global-warming activists: "Green on the outside, Red on the inside." Cf. "Oreo". Unfortunately, most proposals to stop global warming curtail both individual freedom and economic growth. If mitigation policies are not pro-freedom and pro-growth, they will not be accepted.

7. But, most of all, we need the accurate predictions mentioned in point 1. Those of us who lived through the 70s have heard dozens, if not hundreds, of predictions of catastrophes, from ice ages to Jupiter effects to global famine to superstorms. None of them have come to pass. Thus, global warming has become the wolf the boy kept crying about.

In my judgement, the propaganda battle is far more likely to be won by global warming skeptics, due mainly to the complete lack of understanding of history, politics, morality, and human nature on the part of global warming activists. See also Walter Russell Mead.

Certainly I would rather be charged with the task of preventing, rather than enabling, global warming mitigation.

It is instructive to compare this issue with those revolving around the Federal deficit. Everyone knows that the government cannot continue to run deficits of $1e12/yr; but everyone also wants to solve the problem later. (Hence my own political party: the "Make someone else pay for it later" party.)

American citizens do not presently feel any ill effects from the deficit. One can argue that there are some, but they are lost in the noise of other phenomena (unemployment, housing market collapse, general recession). And any effort to diminish the deficit will cause pain to all Americans.

However, if the deficit is not brought under control in a relatively short time (a decade or so), we face the likelihood of a severe, Weimar Germany--level, economic catastrophe.

This is a very good analogy with global warming, I think -- and points up how hard a solution will be.