All This Presupposes That Elvis Is Actually Dead

Al Gore at The New Republic:

The continuing undersea gusher of oil 50 miles off the shores of Louisiana is not the only source of dangerous uncontrolled pollution spewing into the environment. Worldwide, the amount of man-made CO2 being spilled every three seconds into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding the planet equals the highest current estimate of the amount of oil spilling from the Macondo well every day. Indeed, the average American coal-fired power generating plant gushes more than three times as much global-warming pollution into the atmosphere each day—and there are over 1,400 of them.

Just as the oil companies told us that deep-water drilling was safe, they tell us that it’s perfectly all right to dump 90 million tons of CO2 into the air of the world every 24 hours. Even as the oil spill continues to grow—even as BP warns that the flow could increase multi-fold, to 60,000 barrels per day, and that it may continue for months—the head of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, says, “Nothing has changed. When we get back to the politics of energy, oil and natural gas are essential to the economy and our way of life.” His reaction reminds me of the day Elvis Presley died. Upon hearing the tragic news, Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, said, “This changes nothing.”

Jim Manzi at TNR:

For years, much of the political right has claimed that global warming is a scientific hoax perpetrated by statists in order to justify further government control over the economy. I have repeatedly pointed out that this is more or less nonsense, usually to audiences that are far less amenable to this message than the readership of The New Republic, with predictable results. It is certainly true, of course, that there are political actors for whom climate change is a convenient excuse for amassing power, and scientific researchers, bankers, and businesspeople who are just jumping onto a funding gravy train; but this doesn’t mean that the underlying technical risk assessment is invalid.

The political left has its own conspiracy theory on the issue. It was on almost perfect display in Al Gore’s article (“The Crisis Comes Ashore”) in the June 10 TNR. Gore argues that public confidence in the warnings of “looming catastrophe” presented in “the most elaborate and impressive scientific assessment in the history of our civilization” is being undermined by a “cynical and lavishly funded disinformation campaign” paid for by “carbon polluters.” It is certainly true, of course, that some oil companies and other interest groups have funded PR campaigns in pursuit of their narrowly-defined self-interest; but once again, this shouldn’t change our rational evaluation of the environmental impact of greenhouse gas accumulations one way or the other.

Gore agrees in his article that the proper response to this issue is not to be found in the political sound and light show, but in a rational assessment of risks, saying that “rather than relying on visceral responses, we have to draw upon our capacity for reasoning, communicating clearly with one another, forming a global consensus on the basis of science…”. Gore goes on to suggest a technical foundation for this reasoning process:

Over the last 22 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced four massive studies warning the world of the looming catastrophe that is being caused by the massive dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

So, what does the IPCC actually have to say about what we should expect to happen as a result of our “massive dumping of global-warming pollution into the environment”

According to the IPCC’s currently-governing Fourth Assessment Report, under a reasonable set of assumptions for global economic and population growth (Scenario A1B), the world should expect to warm by about 3°C over roughly the next century (Table SPM.3). Even in the most extreme IPCC marker scenario (A1F1), the best estimate is that we should expect warming of about 4°C over roughly the next century. How bad would that be? Also according to the IPCC (page 17), a global increase in temperature of 4°C should cause the world to have about 1 to 5 percent lower economic output than it would otherwise have. So if we do not take measures to ameliorate global warming, the world should expect sometime in the 22nd century to be about 3 percent poorer than it otherwise would be (though still much richer per capita than today).

Prior to consideration of the more detailed economic issues—e.g., costs versus benefits of attempts to forestall the problem; the danger of worse-than-expected outcomes, etc.—pause to recognize that according to the IPCC the expected economic costs of global warming under the plausible scenarios for future economic growth are likely to be about 3 percent of GDP more than 100 years from now. This is pretty far from the rhetoric of global destruction and Manhattan as an underwater theme park.


The only real argument for rapid, aggressive emissions abatement, then, boils down to the weaker form of the uncertainty argument: that you can’t prove a negative. The problem with using this rationale to justify large economic costs can be illustrated by trying to find a non-arbitrary stopping condition for emissions limitations. Any level of emissions imposes some risk. Unless you advocate confiscating all cars and shutting down every coal-fired power plant on earth literally tomorrow morning, you are accepting some danger of catastrophic warming. You must make some decision about what level of risk is acceptable versus the costs of avoiding this risk. Once we leave the world of odds and handicapping and enter the world of the Precautionary Principle—the Pascal’s Wager-like argument that the downside risks of climate change are so severe that we should bear almost any cost to avoid this risk, no matter how small—there is really no principled stopping point derivable from our understanding of this threat.

Think about this quantitatively for a moment. Suspend disbelief about the real world politics, and assume that we could have a perfectly implemented global carbon tax. If we introduced a tax high enough to keep atmospheric carbon concentration to no more than 420 ppm (assuming we could get the whole world to go along), we would expect, using the Nordhaus analysis as a reference point, to spend about $14 trillion more than the benefits that we would achieve in the expected case. To put that in context, that is on the order of the annual GDP of the United States of America. That’s a heck of an insurance premium for an event so low-probability that it is literally outside of a probability distribution. Gore has a more aggressive proposal that if implemented through an optimal carbon tax (again, assuming we can get the whole word to go along) would cost more like $20 trillion in excess of benefits in the expected case. Of course, this wouldn’t eliminate all uncertainty, and I can find credentialed scientists who say we need to reduce emissions even faster. Without the recognition that the costs we would pay to avoid this risk have some value, we would be chasing an endlessly receding horizon of zero risk.

So then, how should we confront this lack of certainty in our decision logic? At some intuitive level, it is clear that rational doubt about our probability distribution of forecasts for climate change over a century should be greater than our doubt our forecasts for whether we will get very close to 500 heads if we flip a fair quarter 1,000 times. This is true uncertainty, rather than mere risk, and ought to be incorporated into our decision somehow. But if we can’t translate this doubt into an alternative probability distribution that we should accept as our best available estimate, and if we can’t simply accept “whatever it takes” as a rational decision logic for determining emissions limits, then how can we use this intuition to weigh the uncertainty-based fears of climate change damage rationally? The only way I can think of is to attempt to find other risks that we believe present potential unquantifiable dangers that are of intuitively comparable realism and severity to that of outside-of-distribution climate change, and compare our economic expenditure against each.

Unfortunately for humanity, we face many dimly-understood dangers. Weitzman explicitly considers an asteroid impact and bioengineering technology gone haywire. It is straightforward to identify others. A regional nuclear war in central Asia kicking off massive global climate change (in addition to its horrific direct effects), a global pandemic triggered by a modified version of the HIV or Avian Flu virus, or a rogue state weaponizing genetic-engineering technology are all other obvious examples. Any of these could kill hundreds of millions to billions of people.

Consider the comparison of a few of these dangers to that of outside-of-distribution climate change dangers. The consensus scientific estimate is that there is a 1-in-10,000 chance of an asteroid large enough to kill a large fraction of the world’s population impacting the earth in the next 100 years. That is, we face a 0.01% chance of sudden death of a good chunk of people in the world, likely followed by massive climate change on the scale of that which killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. Or consider that Weitzman argues that we can distinguish between unquantifiable extreme climate change risk and unquantifiable dangers from runaway genetic crop modification because “there exists at least some inkling of a prior argument making it fundamentally implausible that Frankenfood artificially selected for traits that humans and desirable will compete with or genetically alter the wild types that nature has selected via Darwinian survival of the fittest.” That does not seem exactly definitive. What is the realism of a limited nuclear war over the next century—with plausible scenarios ranging from Pakistan losing control of its nuclear arsenal and inducing a limited nuclear exchange with India, to a war between a nuclearized Iran and Israel?

Brad Plumer at TNR:

Let me start by saying that Manzi is easily one of the smartest, most interesting conservative writers out there when it comes to global warming. Many people on the right, unfortunately, still stick to the crazed view that climate science is all a hoax. Manzi wants nothing to do with those folks. He agrees with the mainstream scientific consensus that human activities are heating up the planet and that this poses a problem (and he’s taken a lot of flak from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh for staking out this position). Where he parts ways with most liberals is on just how big a problem a hotter planet will be.

Manzi bases his argument on his reading of the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report. According to the IPCC’s own estimates, he points out, a temperature rise of 4°C can be expected to reduce global GDP by about 3 percent in 2100. And on the flip side, the IPCC pegs the cost of keeping carbon concentrations in the atmosphere below a “safe” level of 450 parts per million at around 6 percent of GDP. And so, Manzi concludes, mitigation probably isn’t worth it. (To be fair, he has elsewhere expressed interest in a small carbon price to fund clean-technology research, so he’s not in the “do-nothing” camp.)

I see a couple problems with this argument. The first is that Manzi is clinging way too tightly to the IPCC report. Yes, the IPCC puts out the best summary of scientific knowledge about our climate system. I rely on it all the time. But the 2007 report is also dated. Climate science is a rapidly moving field, and more recent research has suggested that things may be bleaker than was projected three years ago. What’s more, the 2007 report had some glaring holes in it. The panel avoided making predictions about how melting ice sheets would affect sea levels because, at the time, ice-sheet dynamics were too difficult to model. This isn’t me offering up a strained reading of the IPCC’s work—the 2007 report was explicit on this point. Given that sea-level rise is likely to be one of the costliest consequences of global warming by 2100 and (especially) beyond, this is a huge omission for any sort of cost-benefit analysis.

Second, it’s a bit too simplistic to use a single global GDP figure when talking about the effects of climate change. True, a 3 percent drop in global GDP may not sound so bad. We’ll all be much richer in 2100, we can take a hit. But that top-line figure can obscure some serious distributional issues. Climate change, after all, is expected to hit developing countries much harder than wealthier ones. And as Nate Silver once noted, you could completely wipe out the poorest 81 nations in the world, with a total population of 2.8 billion, and the blow to global GDP would “only” be about 5 percent:

From a cynical utilitarian perspective, sure, maybe it would be worth it to devastate a bunch of impoverished African countries if it makes the rest of the world richer on balance. But that raises quite a few glaring ethical questions, and I’ll just note that most conservatives wouldn’t leap at this trade-off in other contexts (very few on the right would support seizing property through eminent domain for the greater good of economic development, for instance).

Third point: Harvard economist Marty Weitzman has recently been arguing that there’s plenty of uncertainty in climate projections, and the worst-case scenarios could be really freaking bad. Like, civilization-destroying bad. And that prospect, even if it’s slim, is a great reason to cut emissions—think of pollution curbs as an insurance policy against total annihilation. In reply, Manzi accuses Weitzman of doing “armchair climate science.” But that’s unfair. There are plenty of actual climate scientists who are exploring these worst-case scenarios, too. A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there’s a roughly 5 percent chance that rising temperatures could render vast regions of the planet—like the eastern United States or most of India—simply uninhabitable. An insurance policy against that doesn’t sound too shabby.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I’ve been waiting for Brad Plumer to write a response to Jim Manzi’s argument, which he’s been making for several years, that preventing climate change is not worth the cost. Now that he’s done it, I urge you to check it out. Like Brad says, Manzi’s argument is probably the most persuasive case you can find against reducing carbon emissions. But it’s still not very persuasive.

Mori Dinauer at Tapped:

Bradford Plumer‘s response to Jim Manzi on climate change addresses my No. 1 complaint about conservatives who, while not denying climate change is real, think the threat is exaggerated. The do-nothing analysis is that the economic impact of pricing carbon or curbing emissions will be so great that it will be worse than doing nothing. Plumer goes into the technical reasons why we should be skeptical about this position, but I want to note that Manzi shows little interest in the non-economic consequences of climate change — it’s just one big Econ 101 puzzle to be solved.

Heather Horn at The Atlantic

Joe Romm at Climate Progress

Why would you trust a magazine that doesn’t trust itself?  In a baffling display of ‘balance as bias’ — or perhaps ‘balance as baloney‘ — The New Republic has hired right-wing misinformer Jim Manzi to spread confusion about their articles.

Maybe magazines don’t bother employing fact checkers anymore, but when I coauthored the cover story for the Atlantic Monthly in 1996, “MidEast Oil Forever?” Drifting Toward Disaster, the magazine not only edited the piece, they made me provide a credible published source for every claim.  Even today, I know magazines like Wired fact-check every article.

But TNR appears to have proudly hired Manzi to un-fact-check their articles — at least in the area of energy and the environment, Manzi mostly spreads misinformation.   Indeed, as I will show, Manzi utterly misrepresents the important work of Harvard economist Martin Weitzman, which he discusses at length but doesn’t appear to know the first thing about.

I say TNR “proudly” hired Manzi because editor Franklin Foer has a June 22 column bizarrely titled, “The In-House Critics: Keeping TNR Honest” touting this self-inflicted wound to its credibility:  “it is an honor to be the subject of their criticism.”

I know, you probably thought that the “center-left” magazine paid Foer and Martin Peretz and a slew of other editors (and, one hopes, fact checkers) to keep them honest.  How wrong you are!

As an aside, what’s doubly annoying is that you can read Manzi’s full on misinformation, “Why the Decision to Tackle Climate Change Isn’t as Simple as Al Gore Says,” in full here, but the piece he is nominally debunking, Al Gore’s, “The Crisis Comes Ashore,” from the June 10 TNR is behind their firewall.  You can read extended excerpts of Gore’s accurate piece here.

Manzi’s debunking has already been partly debunked by Time’s Bryan Walsh and TNR’s own Bradford Plumer.

Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator, responding to Romm:

It seems as if it is because of Manzi’s track record of being honest, open, and accommodating that Romm is unable to stand his arguments in a liberal publication without trying to undermine his credibility. It was for that same reason that many conservatives found Manzi’s criticism of Levin so grating — it’s in a way easier to deny global warming altogether than to argue on Manzi’s level. At the time, a number of liberals cast the reaction to Manzi-Levin as a sign that conservatives are close-minded, despite the fact that National Review did publish the piece, after all. But now that the tables have turned and Manzi is writing for TNR, some of the same liberal observers are questioning his motives and accusing him of “lowering the standard of discourse.”

It is to National Review‘s credit that they published Manzi then, it is to TNR‘s credit that they publish him now despite the left-wing outcry, and it is to Manzi’s credit that his soldiers on producing impeccably factual articles only to be derided as dishonest by both the right and left. If only the same could be said of Romm about his willingness to consider reasoned challenges to his assumptions.

(By the way, Romm’s post originally contained a clear factual error: he cited someone who incorrectly claimed that Manzi was the CEO of Lotus (I can’t find a cached version, but it’s noted in a comment left in the morning). Since then Romm has fixed the error, but there is nothing in the post indicating that it has been changed. A meaningless mistake, but suffice it to say that the “misinformer” Manzi would not make a factual error and then fail to acknowledge it in the post.)

Ezra Klein here and here. Klein:

Letting greenhouse gases build in the atmosphere is a bit like letting a tree grow roots beneath the foundation of your house. It may not be that bad this year, or next year, or even the year after that. But with each year that goes by, the problem becomes incrementally more severe, and harder to reverse. So even if Manzi is right that the costs are manageable into 2100 — a century, after all, is a long time for a human, but not for the atmosphere — what does that do to our descendants who have to deal with a scorching planet between 2100 and 2200? And then into 2300, and then 2400?

I think Manzi’s answer is that technology will save us by then. And maybe he’s right. But maybe he’s not. And if he’s not, then we’ve let the problem become unimaginably bad for our descendants. If you bet on technology and you’re wrong, it’s not like we’ve got another of these planets waiting in the back somewhere.

The appropriate technological approach, it seems to me, is to pair a strategy of aggressive emissions reduction with a huge effort to develop technological solutions. Then, if the research begins to pay off, we can transition over to those technologies and ease up on the regulations. But if we don’t so mitigation and instead trust in technology, we may let the situation get so bad that by the time we’re ready to do mitigation, the problem is essentially irreversible.

Manzi responds to Klein:

When thinking about taking actions now to shape the future environment, we should start with the recognition that our ability to make meaningful predictions generally declines as we look further and further into the future. This proceeds in shades of gray from, illustratively, “2030” to “10,000AD.”

At several points in my post I described the projected impacts of climate change through about the year 2100. This is because numerous IPCC forecasts are done through about that point in time, due to the view that projections beyond this point are too speculative.

When thinking about time after 2100, we have, in cartoon terms, two choices: (i) simply treat it as unknowable fog, or (ii) attempt to guess. I think that if we take the first choice, then we simply try to forecast through the next century, and let future generations worry about the world beyond 2100 (though I’ll point out that it is a very unusual political debate in which we call trying to manage the entire world for about the next 100 years as “short-termism”).

If we take the second approach, how far out do we try to guess? The Nordhaus economic calculations that I cited in my post as formal attempts to compare odds-adjusted costs versus benefits actually extend out for 250 years. That is, they consider expected costs and benefits to about 2250. Therefore, Klein’s point is really about potential damages beyond 2250,not 2100. That’s a long way off.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about problems that might occur hundreds of years from now, just that I don’t care much about current predictions about those problems.

UPDATE: Bryan Walsh at Time

Matthew Yglesias

UPDATE #2: Jim Manzi has a round-up at The American Scene



Filed under Environment

2 responses to “All This Presupposes That Elvis Is Actually Dead

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

  2. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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