It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Predicting vs Prescribing

Just by way of name-dropping, I had coffee with Jon Lebkowsky yesterday. Jon is part of circle of people I have admired from a distance for a very long time now. I'm hoping to get better connected with some of the old guard (in Austin at least), but for now that's neither here nor there for the purposes of In It.

I bring him up because of some of the conversation that has followed up on his blog entry about Politics and Climate Change wherein he basically asked the core question of this blog, viz., especially with regard to climate change, Why Is The Truth Losing Ground? Of course, I commented, though on his Facebook page, which I guess you can't see. (*grumble Facebook grumble*) But what's really captivating me about the discussion is somebody else's response. That person quoted this article by Paul Danish in full. I'll just grab a couple of points out of it:
I'm a global warming skeptic. Not about whether it's happening or whether humans have a hand in it, but about whether anything can be done about it—or should be.

1. People will not stay the course on combating climate change or on any other major undertaking if they don't begin seeing positive results in a few years.

4. There can be no realistic prospect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions unless China stops building coal-fired power plants, which it is currently doing at a rate of about one every 10 days. This will not happen.

5. ... Most people in the Third World want running water, indoor pluming, electricity, cars, heated and/or cooled homes, telecommunications, and a lot of other material things, all of which require energy for their manufacture and operation. If meeting their needs only doubles global energy use in that time, and if that doubling is achieved without using any more fossil fuels than we currently do, it will represent a triumph of human ingenuity of unprecedented proportions.

But even that rosy scenario leaves us burning fossil fuels at today's rates, which created the problem in the first place, and which if continued will make it worse.

8. Attempting to prevent global warming is discretionary. Adapting to global warming is mandatory—at least if you want to survive and have any sort of a life.
Got the picture? There are lots of reasons it ain't gonna happen. These are solid arguments, too.

What bothers me is how people constantly confuse description and prescription. They confuse what is probably going to happen with what they want to have happen. Note that the author is clear about this in the first paragraph. "Nothing can be done. Nothing should be done."

What the hell ever happened to democracy, responsibility. I swear, people in this country think that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" means that they should be armed to the teeth and try to squint like bald eagles at people with different colored skin. Eternal vigilance means taking responsibility for the health of the civilization, because the king isn't going to do that for you anymore. Honestly, people seem to have forgotten that we are in charge.

Yes, there is a risk that we are going to be stupid about this. There is even reason to expect that we are going to be stupid about this. But there is no reason to advocate such stupidity.

This sort of fatalism itself is fundamentally a failure of democracy. This is our problem. Not the Chinese', or the Indians' and not the Americans' either. Everybody's. If you are human, you are responsible for the state of the planet going forward.

"I predict that everybody else will be irresponsible, so I don't have do do anything" is pretty childish. Even if the premise holds, the conclusion doesn't follow.

Update: Speaking of irresponsible, here is how this very article is summarized on Climate Depot:

Climate Fear Promoter's Moment of Clarity: Tobis cites 'solid arguments' as to why efforts aimed at preventing global warming 'ain't gonna happen'

'People in the 3rd World want running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, heated and/or cooled homes'

Just what I said, right?

image from


Anna Haynes said...

Framing it as defeatism does seem to make some people rethink their position a bit.

(fwiw: a working link to Lebkowsky's post on "Politics and Climate Change")

cpwinter said...

Is Paul Danish's letter defeatism, or just realism?

(Obscure reference of the month: Soldier, Ask Not.)

I don't discount all his arguments. At the same time, I think overall he is way too pessimistic. I'm working on a detailed response, but it will take some time.

Michael Tobis said...

"nothing can be done - or should be" is certainly defeatism.

"We will have to work very hard to find ways around these problems" is a much better attitude. Or even "we may never succeed against these odds, but the only responsible thing to do is try. Every little bit helps."

cpwinter said...

It would be realism if Paul Danish were right that nothing can be done to mitigate global warming. What I was getting at with my obscure reference was that there are two ways to look at his letter.

In case my point of view wasn't clear before, I don't think he has a solid case. With your permission, I'll try to take it apart here item by item.

Jeffrey said...

Paul Danish is an interesting guy. He is a Boulder, CO politician, writer, and libertarian. He served on the City Council in the 60's and was instrumental in preserving the open space around Boulder (known as the Danish Plan). He writes for Soldier of Fortune magazine. More recently he was a County Commissioner and he once lost an election by 4 votes!

He is known for independent ideas and not worrying about whether anyone agrees with him. Sometimes he is right, sometimes not, but he is always worth reading.

Michael Tobis said...

CPWinter, please, by all means.

Dano said...

"Nothing can be done" IMHO is a complete moral and cognitive (and likely human) failure.

Way back as kids we get the pathetic characters in cartoons that say "it'll never wooooorrrrrk. We're doooomed" and they are denigrated. Maybe some folk need to watch more cartoons...



Michael Tobis said...

To be fair, many people do not understand the likelihood and extent to which doom is involved.

Rick said...

"There are lots of reasons it ain't gonna happen. These are solid arguments, too."

okay - heres a crazy idea - unleash all our nuclear weapons on cities in China and India etc. Destroy the developing world - thats the only way out I can think of that would put a dent in CO2 output.

Either that or we could erect a million wind turbines and probably accomplish nothing at all.

Or we could admit that we can't fix the world.

Dano said...

Again, we're back to Vonnegut (from memory):

"The good earth! We could have save it, but were too d*mned cheap and lazy."


But on a lighter note, what about that Austin boy over in Yurp, riding his bike around with the boys after a layoff? I'm no fan, but its a very good race this year.



Dano said...

I'm no Lance fan.


climatesight said...

Wow, those Climate Depot guys sure know how to summarize a post...

Taking statements out of context is truly an art.

Sort of like those "found poems" you write in elementary school.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Shorter Rick:

We've never even tried building a million turbines, but we know it won't work. Therefore we should do nothing.

-- bi