Thursday, November 08, 2007

Global Fuckin' Warming

God, how I hate the global warming debate. We can see that some warming has happened, and that we are cranking out carbon dioxide like drunken sailors spending money. The data ranges from the incontrovertible to the asinine, and the projections have uncertainties that dwarf any signal that might be in the noise at the moment, so it is desperately unclear how serious things are or will be, but I actually think that how serious it is won't matter as far as what we actually do goes. I am just going to rant for a minute- I apologize for the lack of links, but I am so tired of all of this that I don't have the stomach for it at the moment.

I am not a denier, I'm a scientist. But I am also one who tries to be a student of human nature a little, and right now, even people who 'believe in' global warming don't believe it enough to do anything different. When the UN flies a shitpot full of people to Bali to have a GW conference, someone is not leading by example, I think.

Is anybody here surprised that the average person, who obviously can't perceive a 0.5 to 1 degree C increase in temperature over a hundred years, who wouldn't know a ppm of carbon dioxide if it bit them on the ass, who has only heard of feedback because of Jimi Hendrix, and who has listened to decades of demonstrably bullshit doom crying and unfulfilled apocalyptic prophesies, doesn't get excited about GW? Really?

Consider: People who absolutely, positively know that they will have to retire some day, who can sit down with a calculator or quicken and project what a modest saving and investment rate would do for their later years, can't be bothered to ever save a dime. And these same people aren't worried about what sort of climate their great-grandchildren might have to contend with? Amazing.

It is not like the scientific community has been all that responsible or reliable a guide when it comes to policy. Much of the trans fats we are so deathly afraid of now came into the food supply because we used to be worried about saturated fats. People have been scared shitless in turn about Alar and DDT and Radon and Saccharine and acid rain and salt. We can do without most of this, sure, and making sure people have some idea of what is going on is, in fact, part of our responsibility; but there has always been a tendency to oversell, and to downplay uncertainties, and the result is that the times we actually need our scientific gravitas to matter, it doesn't. And shame on us for it.

The IPCC projects sea level rises, and so does Al Gore. They disagree by at least an order of magnitude. Both cannot be right, and the best response will, dammit, depend on which is more likely. We could save tens of thousands of lives every year if we would just drive 5 mph everywhere. But we don't. We take some reasonable precautions, and sometimes it isn't enough. We say that life is infinitely valuable, but we really don't think so, based on what we do.

Even if we had a more sober and aware populace, I doubt that democracy is compatible with draconian reductions in emissions that are said by some to be necessary for combating AGW. Kyoto, despite being a convenient thing to hit the US with, was doomed from the start, because no one is going to set their energy usage low enough to hit sub-1990 level emissions. Anyone who tried would be out of office.

So why worry about whether it is caused by humans? (I don't know the science well enough to evaluate it, and am happy to defer to experts, knowing full well that they might be full of dung). So much of the 'debate' centers around this point, and more often than not, GW serves as a proxy for other political commitments. The sticking point is that a vocal fraction of environmentalists see humanity as evil. Right or wrong, it just makes me want to oppose them for being misanthropic and dangerous to humanist values that I hold dear.

(There is some interesting research about how opinions about GW correlate with views on evolution and abortion and all the other issues we tend to line up along. There is no rational reason for this, in my opinion. We just tend to get our opinions wholesale from whichever group with which we identify.)

I'm not afraid to say that, while I think that AGW is happening, and is potentially bad, the current understanding of the science could be wrong, and that we do not know climate the way we know physics and chemistry. There are uncertainties. There are unknown feedbacks. There are errors in the data. There are very reliable observations, too. There are underlying physical processes that are, in fact, well understood, but there are no reliable predictions. There is no existing model that can reproduce the data from the past, so application of a steep discount rate to projections is actually pretty rational, though saying so will often get you lumped in with 9/11 truthers, moon hoaxers, and snake-handlers. Worst of all: There is a dedicated political movement on both sides to demonize the other. It irks me that this has become a quasi-religious commitment.

Instead of penning jeremiads against the eeeevils of capitalism and consumption and fossil fuels, I want to figure out what to do about it, given the fact that we are going to goddamed well continue to extract oil until the rocks squeak, we will burn coal until there isn't any, and we will not consistently elect anybody who tries to stop us once the costs become anything other than abstract. If it turns out that the worst of our fears are true, the most likely outcome, if we go along as we are, is that we will figure out ways to export the misery to someone else. I take the responsibility to avoid this very seriously, even when I can't stomach the extremists on either side.

I despair that people really think that hybrids and ethanol and compact fluorescents will change the climate in a positive direction. It is important to say again that no politician will ever have the ability to do anything like a serious carbon tax, because to do so would be to hand the opposition something very handy to bludgeon the political life out of them.

I was reading one of the UK newspapers- maybe the Guardian- and saw letters to the editor that said, apparently without irony, that man should never have left the trees, that humanity is a virus, and that we must be ready and willing to accept rationing of travel.

Perhaps all three of these things could be supported with arguments, though, frankly, I think all three are psychotically misanthropic, and if not that, at least distasteful enough that they will never be a majority opinion. But unless an Eco-Stalin is in the offing, ain't none of them going to happen, 10 inches or 40 feet of sea level rise be damned.

The unspoken premise is that we are going to be victims, no matter what- either physically or politically, and that somehow we deserve it. This, at the heart of it, is what I object to. I say we can figure out what to do, and can make it happen without destroying prosperity or freedom.