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November 11, 2006

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Erasmussimo

Indeed, climate change is pretty much a lost cause now; the political window has closed. We might have been able to build an international system for reducing CO2 emissions if the USA had participated enthusiastically in Kyoto, and then used that participation as the political point of leverage for further extensions of the global carbon regime. Had we gotten all this moving a decade ago, we might be in a position now to avert serious damage from global warming. However, as you rightly point out, the short-term economic interests of both countries argue against any carbon restrictions. I expect that the USA will start to come around only when serious damage is unstoppable, and China will likely never come around.

One of the issues at work here is the magnitude of the threat to different nations. Some nations, such as the low-lying island nations, Netherlands, and Bangladesh, will suffer catastrophic losses. The USA will suffer multi-trillion dollar losses in coastal areas (especially Florida), but the greatest damage may be to the Great Plains, where agriculture will be caught between rising temperatures demanding more water and the exhaustion of the Ogallala Formation. China faces some problems in its rice-growing areas but should be able to cope, and global warming might just increase productivity in its northern wheat-growing regions. Besides, their infrastructure investments that would be threatened by global warming are much lower than the USA's. Thus, they have little incentive to stop global warming.

If we did a complete about-turn in policy right now we might be able to avert the worst damage but that is a most unlikely scenario. And why should we bother when China won't do anything to reduce its emissions? The tragedy of the commons now extends to the global level.

Larry Spears

I just returned from a trip across China on the Silk Road. I can testify to the staggering pollution accepted by the Chinese. In Beijing, I could not see the buildings across Tieneman Square in mid-morning. Moving into western China, it is a long ride before breathing is comfortable. Defensive responses to questions about the pollution focus on the remark that it is made up of sand from the Gobi desert, which they are aware is uniting with other deserts and encroaching on Beijing itself

The preparations for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing are clearly underway in Beijing with aggressive energy. The Chinese response to questions about the impact of the Beijing air pollution for Olympic atheletes is charming in its candor. They say that the government will solve this problem by "running their factories at night during the Olympics."

It may be that several atheletes will collapse or die in this environment under the additional strains imposed by the air pollution in Beijing. Sad that this is anticipatable, but such spontaneous events will be beneficial as a human drama that will focus world and Chinese government attention to what Professor Sunstein says is presently inconceivable.

Roach

Doesn't the fact that (a) there is no firm connection of human activity and observed climate change and (b) no proof that reducing emissions will arrest any climate change trends matter in formulating policy? I mean, are we supposed to bankrupt ourselves and give the Chinese an additional competitive edge on the basis of computer models that 30 years ago said that an ice age was looming? This seems the height of imprudence.

Reducing point pollution, particulate matter, air toxins, water pollution (of drinking water at least), and conservation are all worthy environmental goals which have the benefit of being defensible, scientifically based, and provide tangible benefits. People see the fruits and enjoy them.

The relative contribution of man-made activity on global temperature change remains an issue that scientists are still debating. Their conclusions in scientific papers are often conveyed in a more qualified way than their repetitions by policymakers and the media. Their predictions are largely based on computer models, and these models by necessity must omit and simplify an extremely complicated system.

They must also account for new data, such as the stabilization of global surface temperatures since 1998 and the stability of atmospheric temperatures since 1979. Certain predicted changes under these models have not occurred. Scientists believe natural phenomena--such as changes in the solar cycle--may explain much of global warming. And even if the C02-caused-global-warming thesis is true, the steps we are counseled to take likely will have little effect on the outcome, though they will be very costly for us today.

Environmentalists concerned about the unknown risk of global warming, however, demand either a useless and costly, but bearable, cosmetic response. Or, if they mean what they say, their thinking demands a maximum cost response from the whole human race and the West in particular. Stopping increases, and ultimately eliminating, C02 output could require the cessation of all combustion, which is the sine qua non of productive activity, electricity, health care, manufacturing, invention, etc.

It might be said that this is an extreme picture of what is advocated by global warming fanatics, but there is no obvious reason any lesser solution than a return to the stone age and a subsistence economy or the elimination of the human race altogether would not be required under their logic. Everything short of this continues to add to atmospheric C02 and other greenhouse gasses. Lesser solutions likely would not even have a statistically significant impact on greenhouse gasses, since so many other gasses comes from biogenic activity (i.e., VOX emissions from trees and other plant life), and because so much C02 would still be added to the atmosphere even if Kyoto and similar measures were adopted in full.

Cass Sunnstein's measured tone conceals what is in reality a shrill alarmism that would create enormous costs to us and future generations to avert an unknown risk of global warming.

Not only would these measures be undoubtedly expensive, but they might divert resources better spent on reducing point sources of pollution, reducing air toxics, and setting aside land for conservation purposes. And if these models are reversed again and tell us to worry about an ice age (again), what will Sunstein and his alarmist bretheren in the environmental movement have to say for themselves then.

Erasmussimo

Mr. Roach, your post is riddled with factual and conceptual errors. Let me address a few of these:

"there is no firm connection of human activity and observed climate change"

Evidence for this connection is very strong. It has been provided in a great many studies, the most compelling of which (to me) was the analysis of ocean thermoclines, which have altered in a manner that can only be explained by the greenhouse effect.

I'd also like to point out on this matter that the basic concept of the greenhouse effect has been understood for more than 150 years. Indeed, there were speculations in the nineteenth century that the increased emissions of carbon dioxide due to industrial activity might generate an increase in global temperatures. This basic concept has been noted in physics textbooks for generations. Many sophomore-level physics textbooks, when discussing blackbody radiation, have mentioned the greenhouse effect and observed the possibility that it could happen on earth. This has been common knowledge among physicists for generations. There is nothing odd or novel or surprising about it. It's basic, sophomore-level physics. Our problem is that we live in such a scientifically illiterate society that few people even grasp the fundamental scientific principles at work. But I can assure you, the basic concept of global warming is obvious and apparently inevitable to anybody with an elementary education in physics.

"no proof that reducing emissions will arrest any climate change"

This statement suffers from two conceptual errors: first, the notion that science proves anything, and second, the notion that there is no solid reasoning behind the claim.

1. You can't prove anything in science. Nothing in our entire body of scientific knowledge constitutes proof. You can prove mathematical theorems, but as soon as you make the transition to the real world, the concept of proof evaporates. Most people use the word "proof" to substitute for "compelling evidence". And there IS compelling evidence for the claim.

2. The basic reasoning behind the claim is trivial: CO2 is a greenhouse gas. If you increase the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, you'll increase the global temperature. That's basic physics. If you decrease the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, you will decrease the global temperature. That's basic physics. There are lots of secondary forces at work, and there's lots of room to argue about the MAGNITUDE of the change, but there's no question as to the DIRECTION of the change.

"computer models that 30 years ago said that an ice age was looming"

In a word, this statement is bullshit. I will not waste time debunking it. If you check the sources, you'll find it's one of those myths concocted by people who refuse to face the truth.

"The relative contribution of man-made activity on global temperature change remains an issue that scientists are still debating."

This is incorrect. The National Academy of Sciences has issued its judgement on the question, and they are unequivocal in declaring that anthopogenic global warming is now firmly established. I'd like to expand on this point. The NAS was created by an act of Congress back in the 1930s to provide policymakers with reliable scientific judgements on matters of political significance. Throughout its history, the NAS has taken this responsibility very seriously, and it takes a very conservative tack (that is, it confines its statements to what is widely accepted by the scientific community). The NAS has NEVER been wrong. It has NEVER issued a judgement that was later contradicted. The NAS is to science what SCOTUS is to law -- only more reliable. SCOTUS has altered or changed its rulings. NAS has never done so. Hence, the NAS is the final word on the question. And their ruling is absolutely clear on this point: anthropogenic global warming is a real and dangerous phenomenon.

"Their conclusions in scientific papers are often conveyed in a more qualified way than their repetitions by policymakers and the media."

This is true. However, scientists are concerned with Absolute Truth, and policymakers must deal with likelihood. Hey, it hasn't been proven that Iran is building a bomb, so why bother worrying about it?

"Their predictions are largely based on computer models, and these models by necessity must omit and simplify an extremely complicated system."

Have you any idea of the complexity of current models? Let me give you a hint: even with all the computer power available these days, weather modelling systems continue to bring computers to their knees. Computers are still too slow to process weather modelling systems adequately -- that's the primary factor constraining further development of weather modelling.

Yes, computer models simplify the world. ALL SCIENCE simplifies the world. The models that navigated the Apollo astronauts to the moon left out all sorts of significant factors. Yet they got there and back with no navigational problems, over and over again. The same thing applies to weather models. Sure, they won't get every detail right. But the big picture is really clear -- and it's that global warming is going to have catastrophic effects on civilization.

"They must also account for new data, such as the stabilization of global surface temperatures since 1998 and the stability of atmospheric temperatures since 1979."

This is just plain false. Please present your sources -- I very much doubt that they are credible.

"Certain predicted changes under these models have not occurred."

Do you know how many models there are out there? Do you know how many different predictions they have made? There are hundreds of these things. Yes, they conflict in many details -- that's the strength of the system, not a weakness. It demonstrates that we're looking at the problem from many different angles. Where the models conflict, we withold judgement. Where they agree, we are more confident of the reliability of their conclusions. And the broad agreement of all the models is that global warming is real and it's going to have serious effects.

"the steps we are counseled to take likely will have little effect on the outcome, though they will be very costly for us today"

True. Kyoto would have scratched the surface of the problem. But Kyoto was recognized as a first step in a larger process. It was a confidence-building measure, a trial balloon. Yes, it would have cost us hundreds of billions of dollars. But the costs of global warming will easily run into trillions of dollars, probably tens of trillions of dollars.

"Stopping increases, and ultimately eliminating, C02 output could require the cessation of all combustion, which is the sine qua non of productive activity, electricity, health care, manufacturing, invention, etc."

Well, gee, it sure is easy to dismiss a proposal by overstating the response. You know, we could eliminate all crime by shooting anybody suspected of committing a crime -- therefore we shouldn't have a criminal justice system? That kind of logic doesn't wash with me. We don't need to shut down civilization. Our task is to optimize the overall result. We can spend some money now (in the form of reductions of CO2 emissions) so as to save ten to a hundred times as much money later (in the form of reduced agricultural yields, loss of coastal investments, etc) It's a simple ROI calculation made difficult by uncertainties in the actual future costs. But those costs are so gigantic that we really need to start addressing the issue. (Although I am of the opinion that it's already too late and at this point we should be thinking in terms of damage control.)

"any lesser solution than a return to the stone age and a subsistence economy or the elimination of the human race altogether would not be required under their logic. Everything short of this continues to add to atmospheric C02 and other greenhouse gasses."

Not so. There are natural CO2 absorption processes. The ocean is the greatest of these, but increased amounts of vegetation is another. Of course, there are additional issues raised by this: oceanic absorption of CO2 increases concentrations of carbonic acid in the water, which affects marine life. (BTW, carbonic acid is simply the stuff in soda pop. The fizz is carbonic acid converting to CO2. Ergo, if you want to make your own personal contribution to preventing global warming, don't burp after drinking soda pop ;-) )

"And if these models are reversed again and tell us to worry about an ice age (again)"

Again, this is utter bullshit.

To conclude: I am amazed that people continue to deny a reality that has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. I can only speculate that some people are infinitely capable of adjusting their perception of reality to conform to their political prejudices.

LAK

"Doesn't the fact that (a) there is no firm connection of human activity and observed climate change and (b) no proof that reducing emissions will arrest any climate change trends matter in formulating policy?"

Roach,

Functions that involve large numbers of independent variables (like the atmosphere and climate) can be so complex that no "firm connection" might ever be made from any observed changes in outcomes to changes in the initial conditions of any single variable. Yet with gains in computing power and our ability to "throw data at the wall" and analyze it, you can observe certain trends and track them with a varying amount of success, depending on the volatility of the function.

To dumb that down for you, meteorologists can't model the atmosphere with any exactness, but with more and more data under their belts, their ability to predict certain future atmospheric outcomes based on changes in present conditions can be pretty good, without meeting your ridiculous standard of "proof" or "firm" causal connection.

You must get caught in the rain quite often. "I can't truust the weathrman! he has no firm connections and proof!!!"

That being said when you add heat to a system, entropy is inreased and those very low probablility states become just that much more probable. Ever had a boiling pot spit out/ eject a tiny drop of water at you? Ever had a room temp. pot of water do that?

It don't take a weatherman...

David

Eras said:
"I am amazed that people continue to deny a reality that has been established beyond all reasonable doubt."

Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT disagrees:

www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110008220&mod=RSS_Opinion_Journal&ojrss=frontpage

He characterizes the global warming hysteria as "lies."

That creates some reasonable doubt in my mind.

Erasmussimo

David, how hard do you think it would be for me to find a law professor who makes claims that just about everybody else regards as ridiculous? If there weren't such a professor, then the legal community would be the poorer for it, because we all need the voice in the wilderness challenging our every belief. Mr. Lindzen is just such a voice, and if you read his article you'll discover that he discusses only briefly the science behind global warming, devoting the bulk of his article to claims of a global conspiracy against him and a few others to cover up the "truth" about global warming. The paranoid nature of his writing should tip off any objective reader that this man is strongly embittered at the scientific community. Even so, he was asked to chair one of the panels for the NAS study, and given a complete opportunity to air his views. The fact that his views were not incorporated into the final report demonstrates that he failed to convince anybody else. And please note that at least one of his criticisms has been embraced by scientists as a good point and is now incorporated into the models.

There's a pretty good layman's-level article on Mr. Lindzen in Scientific American at:

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=00095B0D-C331-1C6E-84A9809EC588EF21

The existence of one scientist, even so eminent a one as Mr. Lindzen, should not create a reasonable doubt in any rational person's mind, any more than the existence of one law professor holding highly unconventional views should create a reasonable doubt about established principles of law. These are both part of the functioning of a healthy intellectual community and should not be pounced upon to prove or disprove anything. The thing to look for is the broad consensus of a great many scientists -- and that broad consensus has been established by the NAS reports.

evanston notary

I think law proffesors bring these specualtions on themselves. Mr. Lindzen, "should not create a reasonable doubt in any rational person's mind" Erasmus... I agree with 100%

Clarence

Energy is neither created nor destroyed.

So how can insignificant little humans affect global temperatures? We can't. All we can do is move elements of the Earth around--changing their form.

On a macro level, the Earth goes through periods of warming and cooling. Sometimes the changes are sudden.

Perhaps the Earth is warming and we'll go down like the dinosours did; indeed, one day, most certainly, we will. But there is nothing we can do about it.

LAK

Clarence,

You need help with your understanding of thermodynamics. The U of C blog is probably not the best place to exhibit your lack of understanding.

(BTW, if you want an example of energy being created from mass, go visit Hiroshima. "Momenergy" is conserved in our universe. Let's get with the last 65 years of physics)

Frederick Hamilton

To keep the global warming contingent happy, let's stipulate that CO2 causes the earth's temperature to rise (some).

To explain China passing the US is quite easy. The US has been volutarily decreasing its "greenhouse gsses" substantially over the past 10 years. By at least 20-30%. This will continue, even without the Kyoto Treaty defeated in the Senate 98-0. Ergo, it won't be long at all before China passes the US in CO2 emissions.

And at what temperature benefit will decreasing CO2 bring about? 0.1 to 0.5 degrees C? At what cost?

The US should emulate France and produce 90% of its electricity with nuclear. The used fuel rods can now be reprossed. Will this happen?

We don't need treaties to accomplish a reversal in the reliance on fossil fuels. Just some leadership. Now that the Dems are in power we can expect to see a full court press on developing nuclear generated electricity, can't we? I am looking forward to Professor Sunstein also getting on board with a full scale move to nuclear electrical generation. Safe and no CO2. What is wrong with that? Nothing of course, but don't hold your breath.

David

Eras-

I read the Scientific American article. I still believe that he creates a reasonable doubt. He's not the only one authority I've seen making one of the following points:

1. Lindzen's, which is that the link between warming and human activity is unproven
2. Lomborg, who's point is that the world could well spend its money on other things that would benefit humanity much more (e.g. potable water for everyone).
3. A couple of Russian astrophysicists who say that warming is caused by sunspot activity.

There are others. I just don't think that the science is as settled as what has been presented in the media.

1. The science is in its infancy.
2. The scientists (on all sides) have a large stake in the outcome of the debate in grants, etc.
3. Popular opinion is (as in all scientific controversies) being shaped by media articles whose scary headlines promise more than the articles (or the studies being discussed) deliver.

I believe that global warming is real. However, I am not persuaded (yet) that the connection between human activity and warming has been demonstrated (Google for Little Ice Age, which seems to me to explain a good bit of current global warming,) nor that the likely extent of the warming is as bad as some claim, nor that it would necessarily be a bad thing if it occurs on that level.

LAK

Again though David, we have not demonstrated the connection between most atmospheric factors and the weather, yet the weatherman is pretty good at his job. When data continues to flow in to support a hypothesis that is amlost impossible to "prove" it is worth taking seriously.

As for the extent and effects, have you seen the images of Greenland'sice-cover? Frightening.

When you are buring fuel in an instant and releasing massve amounts of heat and CO2, fuel that contains chemical energy stored in it over the course of millions of years of pressure beneath the earth's surface, it is less of a stretch to assume that that massive release of heat will register somehow and affect atmospheric outcomes than it is to assume it won't.

Erasmussimo

Mr. Hamilton, we do not need a stipulation that CO2 does cause global warming: that is an established principle that has also been verified experimentally. It's simple physics, arising from the combination of blackbody radiation and the absorption spectra of the CO2 molecule. There's absolutely nothing debatable here -- stipulating that CO2 emissions cause global warming is about as generous as stipulating that the moon's gravity causes the tides.

Also, your suggestion that the USA is working harder to reduce CO2 emissions is based upon a rather selective interpretation of the data. In terms of total emissions, yes, China's absolute and per capita emissions are rising, and the USA's values are lowering. But do not overlook the fact that USA per capita emissions are still far higher than China's. We're still the world's most extravagent emitters of CO2. So let's not start polishing our halos yet, OK?

You ask "And at what temperature benefit will decreasing CO2 bring about? 0.1 to 0.5 degrees C? At what cost?"

That's based on Kyoto numbers. We're going to have to do a lot better than Kyoto if we don't want to bankrupt future generations. Remember, the argument in favor of reducing emissions is primarily an economic one. Yes, we can save ourselves a few hundred billion bucks by passing the problem on to our children -- and they'll inherit a problem costing them tens to hundreds of trillions of dollars. Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish!

I agree entirely that we should replace all coal-burners with nuclear plants ASAP. Yes, there are a lot of liberals who resist that notion. But I've seen some change here. More important, though, is the fact that this should not be a partisan issue. If you want to point fingers, let's talk about all the financial support the Bush Administration has given the fossil fuels industry... perhaps it's better we avoid partisan finger-pointing, OK?

David, let's go over your basic points:

1. "the link between warming and human activity is unproven"

Again, I remind you that proof is an impossible requirement in any scientific activity. We still haven't proven Newton's Laws or that the earth is round. We have a lot of evidence, but no proof. So really what we must decide here is a criterion often encountered in law: the standard of proof. Is it "beyond a reasonable doubt", "preponderance of evidence", or "clear and convincing evidence? Remember, in this case, we're working on a policy matter, not a criminal trial or a mathematical proof. What was our standard of proof for invading Iraq? It didn't meet ANY of the above standards. Did you at the time oppose the invasion because Saddam had not been proven to possess WMD? How about the Iranian nuclear program? We don't have anything approaching evidence; our entire policy is based on the supposition that, if they can enrich uranium to 3%, then they'll enrich it to 90% so they can build a bomb. There is no evidence whatsoever that they're building a bomb, and they have explicitly denied that they intend to do so. If we apply your standard of proof for global warming, then we would conclude that there's nothing to worry about and drop the matter. Is that in fact your position?

Lomborg is a tricky case. He's pulled some intellectual fast ones, so I don't regard him as an absolutely reliable authority, but on the other hand he has made some good points, and he has been unfairly castigated by the scientific community. He's right that we could spend our money in many different ways to improve the lot of humanity. But I very much doubt that the average American is willing to give up his comfy-warm home heating to provide food to a starving African. Slowing global warming is not a charitable activity -- it provides us with benefits right here in the USA.

3. Ah yes, the old solar constant argument. Yes, there are a few people who argue that case, and there is a reasonable basis for granting it a very low probability. In other words, it's not impossible that changes in the solar constant could lie behind some changes in global temperature. However, the theoretical arguments for this rely on some very questionable assumptions. We can't rule out the possibility, but betting the future of our civilization on this possibility would be foolish in the extreme.

1. 'the science is in its infancy'. What you mean to imply is that the science is unreliable. You bet it's unreliable. That's why science has developed a system for dealing with such matters. It's based on an entire community of scientists tackling the problem from a hundred different angles and arguing everything out in conferences and journals. It's a huge sifting mechanism that embraces all sorts of crazy ideas as input and sifts and sorts them, establishing various degrees of reliability for the results. Do you remember the cold fusion brouhaha some decades ago? A couple of scientists came up with measurements suggesting that tiny amounts of fusion were taking place at room temperature. The press jumped all over it, but the scientists simply went to work double-checking the results in their own labs. They took the idea seriously and gave it a fair trial. It failed under rigorous testing. They rejected the idea. That's how a good system works. Most nonscientists misinterpret the open-mindedness of the scientific community as an indication of controversy or uncertainty. You can always find a scientist to support almost any claim, no matter how wild and crazy it may be. That doesn't mean that scientists don't know what they're talking about, it means that science cherishes intellectual diversity as a protection against error.

At the very top of the system (in the USA) is the National Academy of Sciences. As I wrote earlier, the NAS is to science as SCOTUS is to law -- only more reliable. NAS has issued its ruling, and it's more reliable than a 9-0 decision of SCOTUS. Yet you embrace a position analogous to rejecting a 9-0 SCOTUS decision as unworthy of credence.

"The scientists (on all sides) have a large stake in the outcome of the debate in grants, etc."

This is a common observation and it represents a total failure to understand how scientists work. In science, you don't get ahead by going along with the crowd. If the only papers you submit are "me too" papers, they won't get published. A 'me too' paper is a strikeout; a paper advancing the current state of knowledge is a base hit; but the home run is a paper that challenges orthodoxy and is right. That's a ticket into the NAS and a shot at the Nobel Prize. Nobody ever got a scientific prize for merely advancing the state of knowledge one small step. It's the unorthodox papers that get prizes and promotions. Scientists have a huge incentive to challenge the orthodoxy and no incentive to rubber-stamp it. They're always striving to find the big surprise, the unexpected result, the unconventional finding. You're way wrong on this point.

3. Yes, popular discussions of global warming are mostly bullshit. That's why we should rely on such institutions as the NAS for our information on this.

Lastly, I'd like to offer an observation on the willingness of people utterly ignorant of science to draw scientific conclusions. Do you have any opinions on magnetohydrodyamics? What conclusions have you come to regarding planetary cores? Punctuated equilibrium? Nostratic? I'm not trying to disenfranchise you from this discussion because you lack an academic degree. But do you at least understand the basic concepts underlying the issues? Can you explain either the Stefan-Boltzmann law or Wien's displacement law? Doesn't it seem kinda silly for you to be drawing scientific conclusions about science you don't understand? Wouldn't it be wiser to simply accept the considered judgement of an august body of eminent scientists after they have given thorough consideration to all the factors?

Erasmussimo

Ironically, just after posting the above comment I ran across this news item:

http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/11/14/asia/AS_GEN_China_Climate_Change.php

claiming that the USA ranks 53rd out of 56 nations in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Mr. Hamilton may take some consolation from the fact that China came in 54th. So what we're really arguing about is "whose halo is filthier?"

David

LAK--

I disagree that "the weatherman is pretty good at his job." In fact, the weatherpeople are pretty bad- they predict worse weather than we have on a fairly consistent basis. (I run regularly so keep track of the weather forecasts.) And the predictions are worse the farther out you get. Try comparing the Weather Channel predictions for "the next ten days" with what really happens. That's one of the reasons I have a hard time with global warming.

David

Eras--

Thanks for your thoughtful response.

I'll address just a couple of your points.

First, I am not a scientist and therefore my knowledge of science must be shaped by the popular press whose output in this area is, as you say BS. That was the basic point of Prof. Lindzen's op-ed: that public opinion is being driven on this issue by a press which greatly distorts the scientific findings.

Second, your claim that human-affected global warming had been "established beyond all reasonable doubt" sparked my initial comment. I do not believe that it has, at least in the legal sense which is where I am at home, and certainly not enough to (1) throw vast sums of money into combatting it, (2) take drastic steps to reduce the use of carbon-based energy sources, thereby almost certainly torpedoing the world economy, or (3) institute the kind of international police state that would be required to force that reduction on everyone from Southern Power Company to me driving my car, to a peasant in India burning firewood or manure to cook and warm him or herself, or, more likely, more than one of the above. At this point in time, what other energy sources do we have that could replace carbon-based sources?

As you note, I am a lawyer, not a scientist, but I've studied several sciences, and the philosophy and history of science, and I have a right to my opinion, even if I don't understand perfectly the science involved.

David

Eras--

One other thing: you bring up Iraqi WMD. I think that case helps prove my point. Up to the time of invasion, ALL the intelligence services thought Iraq had WMD, and only a few individuals were skeptical. So the Iraq WMD thing is an example of a case where the informed consensus was (apparently) wrong.

Erasmussimo

I'd like to start by debunking the myth that "everybody thought that Iraq had WMD". The UN certainly didn't. And in fact, there was one source of intelligence that was patently superior to all the other sources: the UN team led by Hans Blix that was actually inside Iraq (unlike the intelligence services) and had access to the documents and facilities. They were very clear that there was no evidence of WMD. The USA and Britain chose to ignore his extensive reports on Iraqi weapons programs. The "everybody" who thought that Iraq had WMD was nothing more than a bunch of American and British politicians who chose to fix the facts around the policy. Comparing their stupidity with the open, fair, and thorough debate that goes in within the scientific establishment is a gross injustice to the scientists.

I agree that anthropogenic global warming has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt in the minds of the public. But it certainly has been established beyond a reasonable doubt in the minds of the scientists. The NAS does not publish statements over which there exists a reasonable doubt. So if the experts don't have a reasonable doubt, why should you?

The three responses you hypothesize are quite unnecessary. Yes, if we took such extreme measures we could reverse global warming in 50 years. However, the fact that an extreme response is possible does not serve as an argument against a moderate response. There are a great many policy options available to us that will neither torpedo the world economy nor reduce us all to slaves. Shouldn't we give such options due consideration?

I certainly am not questioning your right to an opinion, and I apologize if my sloppy wording has given that impression. I'm not trying to negate your opinion, I'm trying to CHANGE it! ;-)

John Lopresti

I am relieved to find Cass S. reviewing the China factor now; it will grow. I wonder how the US would fare if returning to the gold standard, as the China economic engine once moving is difficult to address. There are already measuring stations on the US west coast gathering identified China pollutants; but the global warming matter is more complex. Perhaps the UN can help frame the need to reverse the engines of pollution in a global context which China already has grasped in its most modern policies about population growth restraint.

The Bush administration, and others before them, have tried to negotiate gradual dissociation of the yuan from the USDollar, with various fairly insignificant success; which is why I thought of returning to the gold standard.

Another approach could be western society reorienting its own consumerist methodologies of achieving civil living.

In sum, the background questions which Sunstein's comments reference are a substrate of many nations' foreign policies, and have been such for decades. Perhaps if the US joins the Kyoto process and its subsequent treaties, there will be a more commodious way to approach winding down the engines of pollution before more milestones are passed. It is written in the most ordinary science commonly now that, in our lifetime, we will witness the extinction of polar bears, as the ice cap has retreated too far for them to reach their seasonal food source; the survivors will be park bears scavenging mainlaind year round. It highlights one of the most inane problems in global warming, that the hockeystick of change references an exponent of acceleration more rapid than evolution.

Duojin Wang

In the world of international diplomacy, countries seldom have the power to force other countries to do anything. They must persuade and many members of the international community are not persuaded by hypocrisy. How can anyone argue that China make the first move in reducing greenhouse emissions when the United States is and will remain the leader in greenhouse emissions in the world for at least the next few years? Despite having 1/4 of China's population? Why is the onus on developing countries to participate (in pollution talks, nuclear proliferation, tariff reductions, etc) when there is no guarantee of US participation? Or that concessions agreed upon by the US can be nulled by a single act of Congress, which doesn't seem to have a good track record recently?

I'm not trying to play a blame game. China has to come to gripes with very serious pollution problems at home before any gains to their economy from international trade are negated by horrendous pollution. (Now Japan has a great track record on showing how a developing country can reach economic success while following rigid environmental standards, but China will willingly follow Japan when pigs start sprouting wings.) While it's true that emissions still trail those of the United States, they are far dirtier than US emissions due largely in part to the prevalence of coal as a source of energy and antiquated factories and equipment. One can even correctly argue that it is far less costly for China to reduce each additional cubic meter of CO2 than the US.

But this still doesn't ignore the fact that (1) the US manages to somehow emit more greenhouse gases than a country 4 times its size while practicing comparatively more efficient emissions standards and (2) the US currently benefits from the output of cheap Chinese factories. In fact, due to point 2, if one can quantify actual US CONSUMPTION of goods created by greenhouse emissions, the number for the United States on point 1 will be far higher.

So, should China reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? Obviously yes. But does the US of all countries have the right to blame China for its current mulish and short sighted policies? Not unless the US solves its own problems first or head towards the right direction. What's frustrating is that it is obvious politicians know all this. But it is simply far easier to criticize another country and use it as an excuse for inaction than to do anything positive about the problem.

Duojin Wang

Also, this is off topic but Mr. Lopresti, do you even know what the gold standard is?

curtisstrong

Duojin Wang,

You write:

"How can anyone argue that China make the first move in reducing greenhouse emissions when the United States is and will remain the leader in greenhouse emissions in the world for at least the next few years? Despite having 1/4 of China's population?"

I´d like to respond. You assume here that no one is trying to change the situation in the U.S. along with the situation in China. Having lived in China, it seems that there is always this argument that goes something along these lines:

"Well you´re doing it too, so don´t criticize me for doing the same thing."

I´m sorry, but the logic there is completely incorrect. First, no one said that China has to be the first to take a positive step. In fact, the text suggests that China and the U.S. do this simultaneously. Second, just because one party is doing something wrong, doesn´t mean that another party is justified in doing the same thing. Please.

Moreover, there are numerous and varied calls within the U.S. to change and better our situation with regards to greenhouse emissions. Those same voices also look to other nations around the world in order to come up with a cooperative solution, principally because one nation is not going to make all of the difference. Every nation must be involved. We all realize that the U.S. is the #1 beast in this situation (and others). Hence, we work to better our situation. Seeing an even worse beast upon the horizon (2009 or thereabouts), however, we begin to fear that progress, if any, made in our own country may be quickly underminded(especially given China´s generally hard-headed stance to outside criticism, if you´ll permit me to say so).

Next, if you´ll read a little closer, Cass Sunstein himself insinuates that the U.S. also shares the blame when he writes that both have "resisted" measures restricting such types of emissions. He goes on to talk about "per capita" emissions, and talks about the U.S.´s resistance to those measures as well. It is NOT his intent to point the finger ONLY at China, but rather at both countries (and by extension, I would imagine he´d say the same about all countries that contribute in a detrimental manner to this phenomenon).

China MAY NOT excuse its abuses of the environment simply by saying that the U.S. also does it. Likewise, the U.S. MAY NOT excuse its abuses simply because China does it. Rather, BOTH must reasonably assess the situation and try not to come up with both short-term and long-term solutions to the problem.

So let´s not get into third-grade finger pointing matches any longer, okay?

curtisstrong

Also off topic,

I see no good reason why China can´t accept a good idea simply because it is of Japanese origin. I understand the Chinese cultural hate for the Japanese, but that´s a silly reason to reject a positive advancement.

David/Eras...very interesting discussion. I lament that there´s nothing I can add, being quite ignorant in the area. However, thank you for your comments...all very informative.

curtisstrong

Oh yes...

And congratulations to Eras for his rare use of the word "bullshit."

I didn´t know you had it in you.

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