A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Skepticism in all the Wrong Places

It's funny to me how some conservatives, who are normally so prone to doubt the competence of human beings to meddle with complex systems, like the economy, are -- shall we say -- somewhat less skeptical about our ability to solve complicated environmental problems through technology.

With even the Bush administration finally admitting in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that human beings are causing global climate change, mostly through CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, you would think the obvious policy repsonse would be to get on board with efforts to limit those emissions. Instead, the administration continues to oppose mandatory emissions reductions in favor of voluntary efforts. And, now, we have news (HT Talkingpointsmemo) that the administration is pushing the solution of literally dimming the sunlight reaching the earth in order to combat global warming without having to cut back on our oil-burning ways. According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

The US has also attempted to steer the UN report, prepared by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), away from conclusionsthat would support a new worldwide climate treaty based on bindingtargets to reduce emissions. . . . The US response says the idea of interfering with sunlight should beincluded in the summary for policymakers, the prominent chapter at thefront of each panel report. It says: "Modifying solar radiance may bean important strategy if mitigation of emissions fails. Doing theR&D to estimate the consequences of applying such a strategy isimportant insurance that should be taken out. This is a very importantpossibility that should be considered." Scientists havepreviously estimated that reflecting less than 1 per cent of sunlightback into space could compensate for the warming generated by allgreenhouse gases emitted since the industrial revolution. Possibletechniques include putting a giant screen into orbit, thousands oftiny, shiny balloons, or microscopic sulfate droplets pumped into thehigh atmosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption.The IPCC draft said such ideas were "speculative, uncosted and withpotential unknown side-effects".

Let me get this straight: we need to have faith in the hidden hand of the market because (per Hayek and others) human beings simply don't have the ability to gather and process the data necessary to manage the economy efficiently, but, when it comes to climate change, somehow we're supposed to believe that human beings will be able to manage the data that would permit us to "regulate" the sun? To quote Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the other."

UPDATE: Jack Balkin has some nice snark at Balkinization about the possible biblical precedents that might make dimming the sun appealing to the Bushies.


Commenting Guidelines

NASA actually funded a study for the sunshade: The notion has been covered by science fiction writers. Clearly the Bush administration isn't a stranger to the realm of fantasy.

The purported contradiction here seems quite strained. If conservatives are supposed to believe universally that one shouldn't interfere with complex systems, then the "conservative" response to global warming would be to throw up our hands and say that there are way too many factors that affect the climate for human beings to design and control the outcome one way or the other. Put another way, if conservatives agree to address global warming at all, there is no more self-contradiction in their suggestion of technological solutions than if they called for carbon cutbacks -- either way, human beings would be attempting to influence a highly complex process. As for the merits of the idea, I'd note that there are serious scientists who are raising such proposals: you know enough about the science here to say that these sorts of solutions should be off the table? Talking about cutting back on our own emissions is all fine and well, but even if we cut back to zero somehow (say, by using nuclear power for everything), if 2 billion Chinese and Indian people start driving cars, the whole planet is going to be on the upward side of an environmental Kuznets curve for a very long time. In that context, it might be wise to start thinking a bit more innovatively.

I don't know anything about the science of the project, but it does sound like something out of Book Three of Gulliver's Travels. Science has come a long way since 1735, but, sadly, human nature has not. I think it is reasonable to worry about this one till further notice.

Down the Memory Hole:I dug up the following dire predictions from the 1970's:Is Mankind Manufacturing a New Ice Age For Itself?Dr. Irving Bengelsdorf in the Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1970Excerpt:Earths average temperature did increase from 1880 to 1940. But in the last 30 years precisely when mans burning activities have spewed the largest amount of carbon dioxide into the air earths average temperature has fallen. In 1968, ice coverage of the North Atlantic was the greatest in more than 60 years.New Ice Age ComingIts already getting ColderOcean Floor Sediment Holds Clues to FutureLos Angeles Times, October 24, 1971Excerpt:Some midsummer day, perhaps not to far in the future, a hard, killing frost will sweep down on the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, the Dakotas and the Russian steppes. [Thomas Owen, assistant director of the National Science Foundation, and head of the NSF office of polar programs]Scientist Sees Chilling Signs of New Ice AgeLos Angeles Times, September 24, 1972Excerpt:A new Ice Age is creeping over the Northern Hemisphere, and the rest of this century will grow colder and colder, a British expert on climate [Professor Hubert Lamb, director of climate research at the University of East Anglia] has claimed.Some predict Ice Age Within a Few DecadesLos Angeles Times, November 15, 1979Excerpt:A new ice age which would probably destroy civilization as we know it could arrive in a few decades, climatologists predict.The sky is falling...

I am sure we are reading different sources, but the only thing I have read or seen on which there is even a majority opinion, much less overwhelming evidence, is that the Earth has been warming. I looked at a survey of US Climatologists from 2005 in which those who believed warming was caused by man and those who believed warming was caused by nature were almost evenly split (the man-made slightly higher) while running a very close third was we dont have enough evidence to say one way or another. We have less than two centuries of real climate data on which to draw. There is a lot of historical and geologic data to indicate there have been long periods of warming and cooling well before man created significant CO2 emissions, and we know volcanic and sun activity can have huge effects on climate. Even within those who agree warming is happening, there are huge divisions about what the effect on man and the environment will be many believe it will be beneficial. Also, interestingly, an awful lot of the scientific opinion comes from people who know precious little more than any average intelligent layman. Why a physician or even a Nobel Prize winning chemists opinion ought to be so important, I cant fathom, but then again I got an earful on proper military strategy from Sean Penn on NPR over the weekend.As for your point, I agree that we should not be planning huge mirrors in space or massive sea water ionizing ships (another solution Ive seen), but frankly, thats the result of the whole sky is falling mentality. I, like Bob, remember the New Ice Age scare of the early 70s. I also remember hearing in school how humanity would be on the brink of annihilation by the end of the century due to starvation and pollution. Those promoting this position were also looking for huge government programs to solve these catastrophic problems.We ought to be looking at alternative energy sources for a lot of reasons, but embarking on massive centrally controlled command solutions is asking for trouble.

Sean and Bob: The ice age thing is such an inapt comparison, if only because of the scope of study and agreement on the climate change problem, which dwarfs the few stray articles and doom-sayers you can pick out from the 1970s. We're talking about decades of research conducted by hundreds of climate scientists and published in thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles, all pretty much pointing in the same direction. From today's NY Times:PARIS, Jan. 29 Scientists from across the world gathered Monday to hammer out the final details of an authoritative report on climate change that is expected to project centuries of rising temperatures and sea levels unless there are curbs in emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere.Scientists involved in writing or reviewing the report say it is nearly certain to conclude that there is at least a 90 percent chance that human-caused emissions are the main factor in warming since 1950. The report is the fourth since 1990 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is overseen by the United Nations.The report, several of the authors said, will describe a growing body of evidence that warming is likely to cause a profound transformation of the planet.

Eduardo,I am not saying global warming isn't taking place, or that man may be causing it, or that it may be harmful. What I am saying is that there is an hysteria, and a near religious fervor about the whole thing that ought to give us pause.It is amazing to me that progressives immediately question the motives of business people because money and power are involved, but never do so with environmental and social activists. Money and power are money and power whether they come from the market or they are doled out by the government. For example, the scientists you cite are hardly likely to come out with a report that says the opposite of what they say, or that says we don't know. In reading about this IPCC meeting last week, I looked up information on many of the members. Most of the scientists are not climatologists or meteorologists - although there are some. They are chemists, biologists, physicists, hydrologists etc. In a way, there are more people interested in the effects of global warming than on understanding the causes for it. Some of them have become very wealthy as climate change experts. This thing has a life of its own.As I said, the global warming craze has gotten to the point that anyone who asks even the simplist question, like, how do you explain that the 12th-13th centuries (shortly before the "little ice age") seem to have been as warm or warmer than the late twentieth century if industrial activity caused global warming? Indeed the geological evidence that the Earth has undergone massive, and quite swift, changes in climate is overwhelming, yet we dismiss any possible non-man made cause out of hand.I think the global warming crowd look a lot more like the Spanish Inquisition than objective scientists. They already know the truth, and woe betide anyone who asks questions.

Sean,Why is it always about motive for you? Let's table that question for a moment. More scientists than ever now agree that global warming is happening, that we are partly responsible, and that we can do something about it. How are we to respond to that? Try to forget, just for a moment, how these environmental crazies are looking to make a buck. Try to put side, if only for five minuets, your urge to find the mote in the eye of the liberal. The IPCC comprises real scientists. It's a diverse body that contains people who work in a range of fields related to global warming. That's how scientific research on a global scale works. It's the only way it can work.

Grant,Of course motives matter. Just because someone is a scientist doesn't make one objective. When a scientist is working for a drug company, everyone sees this as obvious, but if he's working for the NRDC, or Greenpeace, or owns a climate change consulting company (as do members of the IPCC), no one asks whether there is bias.A century ago, the great weight of scientific opinion was in favor of eugenics and forced sterilization as a means to control population which was, according to these same scientists, out of control. Who can forget Paul Erlich et. al who in the 1960's were predicting an unpreventable colapse of the planetary economy and mass starvation by the end of the century. Many UN and international aid programs (that have wasted millions of dollars) were promoted based on this "science." People like Borlaug who promoted better agricultural methods got most of their support from evil agrobusiness and chemical fertilizer companies. Guess who fed more people.As I said, I don't know the answers, but we ought to be asking harder questions of the ones who claim to have them before we turn our whole economy upside down.

"Of course motives matter. Just because someone is a scientist ... no one asks whether there is bias."Clearly, you're asking, Sean, and you're certainly not "no one."It's really only the crazy fringe suggesting we either do nothing or we turn the economy upside-down. No reasonable person is suggesting we do either.A few more things: first, the accurate term is not "global warming," but "climate change."Next, I've forgotten about Erlich, but it's also undeniable that more people are living in poverty today than in the 60's. I'd prefer to thank botanists above agribusiness, for the latter has not always contributed to farming for food in the Third World. We do produce enough to feed the planet, but the Earth's resources of water and space are not limitless. Strange how the "whole economy" in other places around the world is upside-down, and to some of the First World, happily remains so.No scientist dismisses natural warming cycles. The human effect on those cycles is what you seem ready to discount. The experts would seem to conclude you are wrong.I don't think anybody's advocating "central control," but I think leadership must come from somewhere. Otherwise petrochemical interests may well drive the show based on short-term economic interests.Eventually, the planet will run out of fossil fuels. It would seem prudent to shift our energy sources today. If an ice age indeed arrives to knock humanity back into the Dark Ages in a few centuries, it will be much harder working those bootstraps without coal and oil.

Todd,First, you are factually incorrect about poverty rates. Poverty and hunger rates have been going down steadily worldwide for decades. I would refer you to the World Bank and to UN databases and reports. More people died of starvation in the last two decades of the 19th century than in the entire twentieth century notwithstanding that the population at the end of the 20th century was more than 100% higher. Indeed the single best predictor lower poverty is the extent to which there is a free market and low regulatory burden.Ehrlich was the author of the Population Bomb - also known for his famous bet with economist Julian Simon regarding the "inevitable" skyrocketing of certain critical mineral prices due to overuse. Simon not only disagreed but bet him the prices would go down - Simon won. Nonetheless, the Population Bomb is still considered a classic by environmentalists.This is exactly what I mean - anyone who disagrees with the common wisdom is a "lunatic." They may be a minority, but their are lots of scientists who have serious doubts about the IPCC's findings. Twenty years ago, the "Earth is Warming" crowd were a distinct minority. As I said, there is almost a religious faith in this movement that ought to worry reasonable people.The Kyoto Treaty and other like schemes are exactly "central control" mechanisms. Like most environmental regulation, they set arbitrary command standards. Such standards tend to economically hinder those that abide by them, and encourage others to cheat. They often create disincentives to make incremental improvements, instead demanding exactitude that usally can't be acheived.

Thanks for responding, Sean.First, I wasn't talking about rates of poverty, but actual numbers. We have twice as many people in the world today compared with Ehrlich's time. While we don't have twice as many poor people, we do have more people living in poverty, period.Second, I suspect that the environmentalists of the 60's were pessimistic in their outlook. Thanks to the environmental movement, human society is far better off than it could have been, had short-term profit motivations held sway.Third, while overall poverty rates might indeed see some relative benefit from free markets and low regulations, we also see across the globe the effect of corruption and organized crime in the former Soviet bloc, in Latin America, and Africa. At some point citizens, through a representative government, have to step in and say that this crap is too extreme for civilized society and set down guidelines. Complaining about regulations strikies me as having the whiff of a certain criminality. ("Why should I be bothered by murder, theft, and conspiracy?I'm trying to run an honest business."Next, I think that scientific details of climate change (not warming!) are up for refinement and further study. But when a person brings in the "poor, poor, business" argument, it's hard not to see them linked in a biased way. In the real world, there will need to be a balance between the ideal climate stasis strategy and what the world's nations and businesses can bear economically and politically. We need to keep the science arguments separate from the business ones until the best solution can be determined. But we also need to act quickly.Regarding your last paragraph, the scientific standard must be set apart from lobbying. Once that's established, the expectation is that every business will be a good citizen and abide by society's standards. If businesses make choices to trade credits in good citizenship in regions or across borders, I don't see that as a problem, so long as the overall goals are reached.

Turn our whole economy upside down?

I'm sorry Todd, wrong again. According to the World Bank, hardly right wing free market flacks, the absolute number of people living in poverty reduced from 1.5 billion in 1981 to 1.1 billion in 2001, despite population increases. The overall rate of poverty reduced by 50%.Subsaharan Africa and the former Soviet Union are not examples of free market economies. In point of fact, those areas have extremely high rates of business regulation which is one of the reasons that the cleptocracies flourish. If one must go to three different ministries and pay huge varieties of taxes and fees to start a business, it become far easier and more enticing to simply bribe people and pay criminals for protection. In point of fact, the central governments, where they are functioning, are extremely powerful in these places. Your assumption seems to be that regulation "protects" people only. In some cases it does, but more frequently it just puts power into the hands of government officals who may use it for their own purposes. Peaople are far better at taking care of themselves when they are permitted to.I also find it extraordinarily naive when people talk about "big business" as if there are board rooms of overweight fat cats running the world and hoarding the money. I am big business - most of the people who read this blog are big business. We own these companies. If you have a 401k or other invested pension plan or IRA's or mutual funds you own Exxon and Pfizer. The most important players in the market today are public employeee pension funds. We screech about corporate tax breaks. Who do you think actually pays the taxes? If we go after big oil's "windfall" profits do you think this matters one wit to the executives? Will they have to buy a BMW instead of a Bently? We pay for the tax one way or another. All taxes are paid by actual individual people one way or another and it always hits those who can least afford it the most through higher prices or more scarce resources. I'm not worried about business, I am worried about my family and my neighbors.My whole point about "climate change" is that we really don't understand it enough to make dramatic changes that are being called for. Moreover, only an international scheme could work, according to advocates. What will we do when China or Brazil, or India cheats? Have the UN cesure them? Despite statement like those referred to in Eduardo's other post on this subject, we don't really know what the effect of global warming will be. We can't even predict with certainty what the weather will be in two days, but we can predict what will happen 50 years from now well enough to make policy decisions of such economic import.And Grant, people seem to forget that the Kyoto protocol was rejected 98-0 in the US Senate. I think it is safe to say that when the likes of the late Paul Wellstone and Teddy Kennedy agree with Strom Thurmond and Rick Santorum that a measure would be economically devastating, it's probably a bad idea.

Sean -- I have to correct two things in your most recent comment. FIrst, stock ownership. Lots of folks may own stock in their 401K plans, but stock ownership is highly concentrated in this country, with the top 20% by wealth owning nearly 90% of the stock. Second, you need to distinguish between weather (which is indeed unpredictable beyond the very short term due to the chaotic nature of the phenomenon) and climate, which is the statistical aggregation of weather data over longer periods of time, and which is far more stable (and predictable) than localized weather phenomena.As for the Kyoto vote in the Senate, I agree with you that the Dems were cowards. I think the vote would be different today, though, because of the greater scientific consensus about the costs of doing nothing and the (apparently) increasing Dem. backbone on the issue.

Eduardo,On stock ownership - that figure does not include ownership through defined contribution plans. A middle income cop or teacher or garbage man may not be seen as "owning stock," but he does. I believe the single largest owner of equities in the world are the California public employees. I don't disagree that wealthier people own more equity interests, but when the economy suffers, I care a lot less about Bill Gates' investments than the one's in my pension plan.I accept your distiction between weather and climate data, but my point still stands. The point isn't that they are the same, but that in a field where the principle purpose of the exercise is to use past data and scientific knowledge, correlate with present data, and then predict the future, we still get it wrong. And we have been predicting the weather a lot longer than we have tried to predict the climate. If you can show me where, in all of human history, there is a single, solitary instance where anyone has taken this aggregation of weather data which is so stable and actually PREDICTED what the climate would be like 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, or 100 years in the future I will withdraw my objection. As a pilot friend of mine says, if you start a trip across the Atlantic half a degree off course, you end up in Morraco instead of Paris. What you call cowardice I call a singular instance of profound common sense.

Good to engage you again, Sean. The World Bank acknowledges your numbers are estimates. The numbers I've seen from the UN put the number in poverty at about 1.2 billion--steady through the 1990's. Numbers of those in poverty in the US have actually risen slightly since 1960. The Chinese government claims to have lifted about 200 million out of poverty in the last 15 years. So perhaps you are right. Still, one billion people in poverty is no badge of honor. And more to the point, they probably won't be crying if climate policy disrupts the profit streams for those who put them off the family farm."Your assumption seems to be that regulation "protects" people only."Sometimes it protects businesses from self-destruction. The self-destructing cycle of spending and entitlement in pro sports comes to mind: athletes and owners alike. The lack of direction for fuel economy has pretty much sunk the Big Three, and I don't see any relief on the horizon for them, do you?"I am big business - most of the people who read this blog are big business."They let people invest with their capital--when they have it. But how many permit employees to assist in the direction and growth of the company. In truth, many corporations run themselves like the old USSR, talking the talk on workers, but shutting out the proletariat from actual decision-making. I don't care for ownership so much as good citizenship. I think I'd look more favorably on big corporations if they actually had some democratic reforms to better reflect the society they live in."My whole point about "climate change" is that we really don't understand it enough to make dramatic changes that are being called for."Incorrect. We know enough to steer away from further carbon emissions. If the current generation of politicians can't take the science and make it work with the good citizens of big business, then we need a new set of leaders."(W)e don't really know what the effect of global warming will be."Also not true. We know the extreme end of a warming cycle: the flushing of oceans with fresh water, rising sea level, alteration of ocean currents, a colder Europe, and disruption of rainy seasons. We can read the fossil and ice cap climate record to see all this, and to know that we'll reach a certain point when large-scale patterns will be disrupted. You're right that we don't know exactly when the tipping point will be. It might be 5% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It might be 50%. It could happen tomorrow or in the next century. We're basically driving past the sign that says "Road out ahead," and we can see up to the top of the next hill that the road is fine. If we wanted to have a nice picnic up there or something, that would be a good excuse to drive on. But if the goal is to get somewhere long distance, then the best route is to turn around, gently, not dramatically, and find another way.Yes, those spineless Dems on Kyoto. That vote may have been one factor that cost them the White House in 2000.

The Guardian -- Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today. Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded think-tank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Eduardo,Shocking! Money influencing scientists! A whole $10,000! Exxon needs to get with the program if they want to really influence things -The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Institute for Climatic Change Research (NICCR)-- formerly named the National Institute for Global Environmental Change (NIGEC)-- hereby announces its interest in receiving research proposals to conduct research related to effects of climatic and atmospheric changes on terrestrial ecosystems. - $5.9 Million for each of the next 3 years - Bush needs to get them in on the conspiracy if it's going to work.Pew Charitable Trust -Nov 06 - $1,320,000, 3 yrs to PENNFuture for Global Warming researchFeb 06 - Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, $200,00 for one yearThe DOE is also offering grants to develop computer models to predict the effects of climate change - no amounts given, but I bet it's more than a piddling $10K.Yeah, money sure can influence people - so long as it comes from Reblicans or oil companies.

Eduardo -- If you read the whole thing, the AEI letter seems quite a bit less sensationalistic than the Guardian portrayed. Might be worth taking things with a grain of salt now and then.

Also, Eduardo, you're in danger of getting a lecture from Grant Gallicho. ;) "Why is it always about motive for you? Let's table that question for a moment. . . . Try to forget, just for a moment, how these environmental [skeptics] are looking to make a buck."

Also Eduardo, note that the *head* of the IPCC -- Rajendra Pachauri -- was quoted as saying that Bjorn Lomborg (whose book on the environment was skeptical of the cost-effectiveness of various anti-global-warming measures) was akin to Hitler: are a lot of genuine scientists associated with IPCC, to be sure, but scientists are human beings too. The head of the IPCC is saying that skepticism (not about global warming itself but about the usefulness of various policy solutions) makes someone akin to Hitler. 1) This is far more radical and prejudiced than anything in the AEI letter that you point to; 2) it was said by someone with immeasurably more power and influence over the global warming debate than AEI; and hence, 3) people might justifiably be a bit wary that scientists who want the money and prestige of associating with the IPCC would have every incentive to slant their analysis to avoid being called Hitler themselves. Not saying that this is happening, of course; I'm not qualified to make that determination. Still, if you're worried about the AEI letter, and if you're evenhanded on this issue, you've got to be much more worried about IPCC.

(1) Thanks for the Volokh link, Stuart. I'm all for grains of salt. I consider the Guardian to be a generally reliable newspaper, though in this case I'm inclined to agree that they misrepresented the facts. In any event, Sean's reaction is as illuminating as the original (incorrect) story. Research money to study is not the same as money designed to elicit a particular conclusion. (I'm not saying this is what AEI did, but Sean clearly is unable to distinguish the two.)(2) You're misrepresenting Pachauri's comment. He's not talking about global warming skepticism at all but about an economic conclusion that certain communities are not worth saving.

Eduardo,Believe it or not I do understand the difference, but I also understand that money is money, and when the money is flowing in a particular direction people's behavior will be influenced - regardless of the source. Whether the direction the money will flow is explictly stated or not makes little difference. What matters is where it goes, and right now I suspect those challenging the common wisdom aren't getting a lot of this money.Also, there is only one conclusion that will keep the money flowing. If I convince everyone there is a problem, I will get more money to tell them how bad it is, and even more to tell them how to fix it. If I say, there isn't a problem, or it's not as bad as others think, I just pick up my things and go home.

Well, it's also not quite right to say that Lomborg believes that "certain communities are not worth saving," as if to imply that he'd let them drown. What Lomborg evidently says is that if it would cost too many trillions of dollars to completely prevent all global warming, then it would be cheaper to relocate those very tiny communities of people who happen to live on islands that are inches above sea level. Agree or disagree, that's nothing even remotely akin to Hitler's philosophy, which certainly wasn't about how to find cost-effective solutions to environmental problems. In any event, you're avoiding the point, which is that if you're worried about the taint of one AEI letter that suggested an interest in a critique, you should be much more worried about the taint of an IPCC **president** who thinks that anyone who disagrees with him as to any aspect of global warming is worthy of comparison to Hitler. If the potential for being tarred with that comparison wouldn't tempt some people to shade their analysis, what would? A threat to shoot them in the kneecaps?


About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the John P. Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.