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Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Pessimistic View of Global Warming

This American Life is one of my favorite podcasts (besides the podcasted Supreme Court oral arguments, when the Court is in session).  But because of that, I wanted to take a moment to complain about a recent episode, about global warming. The show started with a vaguely promising premise:

The conversation about climate change is stuck. It's stuck. It's stuck in the same utterly tiresome place that it has been stuck for years. There are the people who believe that global warming is happening, and there are the people who don't believe that, going back and forth with the same retread arguments over and over. According to a recent Gallup poll, just over half the country thinks that climate change is real and is man-made-- which, despite the crazy weather last year, is more or less exactly where it's been for most of the last decade, give or take a couple percentage points.

And today on our program, after a year that seemed like a dramatic preview of what climate scientists are predicting for all of our futures, we ask, why in the world is the conversation so stuck? That's going to be the first half of our show. And then in the second half of the show, we have found some places where it feels like battle lines are, in fact, shifting a little bit. We've found completely fascinating efforts by people who are consciously trying to lift us out of the mire and muck that we have been caught in, to end the standoff, to reinvent the exhausting, stupid climate change debate.

But the results were quite disappointing. All of their examples of people supposedly "reinventing" the climate change debate were people who were convinced that we needed to do something now to stop or reverse global warming, which is pretty much what that side of the debate has wanted all along.

Now, I am inclined to assume that global warming is occurring and that human activity is responsible (not, as Justice Scalia would say, that I can affirm that "on my own knowledge or even my own belief"). But in a show that was devoted to finding ways out of the standard debates about climate change policy, I was surprised to hear nothing like the following view:

We may well be causing climate change, but it's not clear there's anything we as individuals or we as a country are really equipped to do about it. So much of the damage is already done, and so much of the future damage will be caused by activities that the United States government can't control, that no useful policy proposals that are plausible-- or even conceivable given our current political institutions. Thus, the science of climate change really isn't relevant to any important decisions, or even any important political activism, until scientific solutions or political institutions radically change. We can just ignore it.

Now, I am not certain this view is correct. I am not even certain that I hold this view (although I am sympathetic to it). But I've heard it articulated by at least one smart law professor, and I've got to assume that he's not the only one. I would have thought that at a minimum it deserved a place in the show. (The show also didn't discuss any of the weird science discussed by team Superfreakonomics.)

[UPDATE:  I like this response by Eric Biber on adaptation.  His core point: "even if you think we can’t do anything at all to reduce the extent of future climate change, we still need to adapt to that climate change."  I basically agree.  There's reason to doubt that our current political institutions (democracy, lack of world government) can feasibly do much to stop the output of greenhouse gases; but adaptive measures don't require the same kind of global cooperation or (as much) time-consistency.  Assuming, that is, we can figure out what adaptive measures are necessary.

I wish he'd been on This American Life!]

Posted by Will Baude on June 22, 2013 at 01:27 AM | Permalink


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Have we forgotten that we are in an interglacial period? During which the earth continues to warm...until it doesn't? And all these scare stories that are based on fractional degrees of departures from average? Sounds like politics more than science.

Posted by: jimbrock | Jun 25, 2013 10:11:11 AM

The data of long running single site thermometer and tide gauge records shows *no* trend change from the historical and quite natural mild warming trend. How damn *hard* is it for you lukewarmers to just stare at a chart for a few moments to let these uncontroversial facts sink the heck in?!



...and you're *done*, on both sides of the so-called "debate."

Posted by: NikFromNYC | Jun 24, 2013 7:08:03 PM

There is little doubt that most of the global warming solutions suggested by the leftists would devestate the worlds economy. The warming trend has now halted for 15 yrs, so there is considerable doubt that global warming is even real. It is already clear that the models that were used to predict horrible irreversable devestation are already proven to be badly flawed. It is also possible that any global warming could be balanced by a global cooling trend driven by descreasing solar activity, in which case global warming could even bo good. So perhaps it is time to apply the precautionary principle to the global warming leftists, and stop action on global warming, until the flaws in the models are cleared up, the data is much more solid, and the solutions proposed more likely to actually work.

Posted by: richard40 | Jun 24, 2013 6:47:08 PM


I don't know if you'll get to this comment after sifting through all of the various climate change skeptic/denial comments here (they're good for the traffic numnbers though!). But there's a simple response to the point of view you develop above: adaptation. Even if we can do nothing to reduce global warming we'll need to adapt to it in the future. I've posted more on this at the UC Berkeley/UCLA environmental law blog, here:


Posted by: Eric Biber | Jun 24, 2013 6:15:19 PM

"What's immoral is the idea that, if change appears unlikely, we should simply ignore the problem."

Do you even LISTEN to yourself? Seriously:

-Alien invasion appears unlikely
-The government controlling our minds with satellites appears unlikely
-Tidal waves that reach Colorado appear unlikely
-Zombie apocalypse appears unlikely

Shall I go on? Some people take actions in preparation for those things, and they laugh at those of us who deem such events "unlikely". Some of them even call the rest of us "immoral" for not being prepared for them!

Are you seriously advocating that we should all be lining our houses with tin foil to keep out the government mind control rays? That's the level of argument you just deployed!

"I'd be more receptive to counterarguments if they didn't come from a camp that has historically been so "anti-science.""

Considering just the amazing levels of PROVEN fraud supporting AGW, much less the ones that seem highly likely but aren't yet proven, I find it absolutely laughable to call the anti-AGW side "anti-science".

The track record of the warming crowd is one of utter and complete failure, model-tweaks, and and new projections (10 more years out). Lather, rinse, repeat. They've been not just wrong, but hilariously, ridiculously wrong many MANY times in my life.

The evidence of the UN report on this stuff is quite amazingly silly (my favorite is "the paper on glaciers receding that was actually an admittedly conjectural, entirely-data-less article by an undergrad, who didn't know the article was cited, much less suggest they use it", but there are several good candidates). Much of the data is quite simply hidden from public view, some of what is in public view has been "corrected" in ways that are clearly biased (NASA data, publicly released, then publicly released again later with the data essentially rotated around 1975), and some of the public data is simply left out there obvious in the hope that no one looks (the graph on how much the data is "adjusted", for instance, shows an "adjustment" of about half a degree C, now, having ramped up to that slowly over the last several years - what's the supposed warming that has taken place over those years? Oh yeah, about .5 C).

Here's a link that has archived GISS data and compared the "adjusted" version to the previous version, then graphed the differences - look at that chart. It's pretty darn obvious what's going on there.
Yes, yes, it's a "denier" website... so, assume everything they say is lies, and look at the actual data they link. It speaks for itself.

OK, I'll go one better: here's a link to the bloody government source of the data, graphing the "adjustments" for you - no work required, right from the horse's mouth (or possible possibly the opening at the other end - it's that badly obvious):

and that from this page:

Take a look at that, and make up your own mind. The "adjustments" make up .5 C of the warming, with the raw data only having a .1 C trend... that is, the "adjustment" is 5 times larger than the trend in original data.

Posted by: Deoxy | Jun 24, 2013 4:56:01 PM

Well the scientists don't even know what are all the variables, so even less how to weight what they know.

What history and knowledge we have about cloud cover? almost nothing.

AGW is social construction, a mania.

Posted by: lucklucky | Jun 24, 2013 4:06:55 PM

Our California legislators have decreed that we in CA will solve the entire problem on our own.
The rest of you can stand down.

Posted by: Jim,MtnViewCA,USA | Jun 24, 2013 3:59:09 PM

Anyone with the hubris to say they understand what is causing a global climate fluctuation well enough to propose a solution is someone that should not be allowed near Kool-Aid and cyanide at the same time.

Posted by: Bill M | Jun 24, 2013 3:58:18 PM

Climate Science suffers from the same problem as Keynesian economics: the mistaken belief that what cannot be predicted at the atomic level can be understood in aggregates. Essentially, both of these pseudo-sciences are the study of very complex systems with a multitude of variables (some still unknown). Since it is impossible to accurately create models which account for the interplay of all of the variables, the pseudo-scientists just choose to ignore what they can't understand.

Look for patterns based on the whole, and when the input data doesn't match the models, change the input to make it match.

Take a model with millions or billions of variables, and hold all of them constant. Then extract the prediction you were seeking by manipulating the one variable you have controlled for.

It's no wonder that the predictions have been wrong. The amazing part is that anybody still calls these snake-oil salesmen scientists.

Posted by: Philalethes | Jun 24, 2013 3:13:12 PM

AGW - The greatest scientific fraud since Piltdown Man. Without the global warming hysteria, climate scientists would have to find real jobs. Then what would they do? No for-profit company will hire these bottom-of-the-barrel "scientists."

Posted by: Dave72 | Jun 24, 2013 3:13:01 PM

It's not that doing something MIGHT NOT help, it's that doing something ALMOST CERTAINLY WON'T help.

If you still wish to feel the heroic buzz of diving into some rapids, to save a baby, even though you're going to also drown, go right ahead.

Just don't take our economy down with you.

Posted by: Martin | Jun 24, 2013 2:44:26 PM

A smart paper on the whole issue of what climate scientists and their political allies now can do is by Robert Socolow in a recent Vanderbilt Law Review.

Posted by: Frank Popper | Jun 24, 2013 11:58:03 AM

And apologies for my arrows not working.

Posted by: Rob | Jun 24, 2013 2:22:21 AM

Here's my version, I optimistically think the science is irrelevant:

We may well be causing >>an increase in warming apart from what the temp would be>with current technologies. There's no evidence of any damage done by the current ~.8 degree rise from ~1880 temperatures, which themselves were arguably on the rebound from the Little Ice Age, and future damage has seemingly been estimated to only occur after a 2 degree rise while warming to that point is expected to be beneficial aside from the plant growing effect of CO2 itself>and tech levels>but rather should invest in technology in case human warming is overwhelming of natural effects and will cause warming beyond 2 degrees or even in view of the potential running out of easily accessible 'fossil fuels' which the economy depends on.<<

Even some who believe man made effects will warm above 2 degrees argue that technology investment is by far the most effective policy and the case for 2 degree plus warming depends on the ~17 year pause/slight warming (and possibly slight cooling in the last decade albeit alongside a paucity of el ninos) to change pretty dramatically over the next decades. My optimistic conclusion that the science is not relevant to discussions and that the tech investments that are a very good idea anyway are achievable with current politics and maybe even with current spending that attempts to mitigate warming effects. (and given that we are naturally on the down slope of a typical inter ice age warm period research into geoengineering to cool or warm the climate would be welcome by me)

Posted by: Rob | Jun 24, 2013 2:19:23 AM

"So much of the damage is already done, and so much of the
future damage will be caused by activities that the United
States government can't control, that no useful policy
proposals that are plausible--or even conceivable given our
current political institutions. "

Do fragments, etc., contribute to climate change?

So much of the damage has been done already and so much of
future damage will be done by activities the
United States government won't be able to control that
no useful policy proposals are plausible or even conceivable
given the state of our current political institutions.

Meanwhile, our epistemology of reason, which relies on the
proper integration of data (e.g., data on "climate change"
which reveals that such change is pretty much SOP throughout
the planet's existence), continues to degrade into
dis-integration in which the One in the Many (Aristotelian
induction) becomes the Many without the One
(Kantian nihilism), which will eventually become
the One without the many (Platonist Supernaturalism).

In short, whether poor composition or poorly inferred
scientific conclusions, our thinking is becoming increasingly
more muddled.

But don't worry: evangelical religion or fascist
mysticism will save the day!

Posted by: writeby | Jun 23, 2013 3:24:59 PM

not ... that I can affirm that "on my own knowledge or even my own belief"

Hmmm, ignorance as the basis for forming an opinion - how very progressive. Well, if you'd actually taken the time to look into it, you'd have discovered that CAGW is on the ropes. It is failing the only legitimate test for modern science - that it can make reliable predictions.

Posted by: Ed | Jun 23, 2013 3:07:43 PM

Perhaps people are skeptical of climate change because many prominent scientists have characterized the crusade against CO2 as an overreaction? See this op-ed and its signatories:


I also worry that the scientific academics suffer from the same severe biases that plague legal academia. There are many issues that 90% of legal academics agree are totally resolved and one-sided, but actually aren't.

Posted by: climatehopeandchange | Jun 23, 2013 12:47:25 PM

"There are the people who believe that global warming is happening, and there are the people who don't believe that..."

True - but highly slanted. There are a lot of us who are quite aware that the world, at least the Northern Hemisphere, is warmer (or colder) than in the historical past. It has been quite a while since the Thames was frozen enough and long enough to hold a Winter Fair with mass entertainments, food stalls, etc. It is also quite a while since Greenland was, well, green.

And yes, humans certainly affect at least "local" climate on a lasting basis. Ever hear of the Cedars of Lebanon. which were harvested for shipbuilding and other purposes?

But it seems to me a heck of a lea from "Humans can affect climate" to "humans are the only cause of changes in climate." And the politically-approved cures seem to me even worse than the problem. Even assuming we reduce CO2 output, and the temperature then goes down - how far down and what will we do if it goes down too far?

Posted by: John A | Jun 23, 2013 11:07:03 AM

I'm reminded of another potential catastrophe predicted years ago. Actually, over two hundred years ago by Thomas Malthus. There were too many people on the planet according to him. At the time, there were 1 billion people on the planet, 1/6th the population now. That argument was picked up again some 45 years ago. There would be a population bomb, Paul Ehrlich said. It was morally, imperative to do something. China instituted a one child policy, forcing abortions on women who didn't adhere. The Johnson administration insisted India perform forced sterilizations on women in exchange for food aid. Whenever someone insists we must urgently do something to correct an issue, it's time to take pause.

Posted by: Mishu | Jun 22, 2013 11:19:20 PM

I have to agree.

The most likely scenario, on the basis of reading both sides pretty exhaustively and coming to my own best conclusions about who's full of hot air, who's making an effort to seriously engage but still probably mistaken, and who's really thinking it through, is something like the following:

1. Climate sensitivity is high initially, but has negative feedbacks at the extremes and so tends to be a self-correcting system;

2. You can still swing pretty far one way or the other prior to the negative feedbacks shoving you back towards the center, because the negative feedbacks for forcing have a substantial delay factor;

3. These short-term ("short-term" at the civilizational lifetime scale, I mean; they can be decades or centuries in length) swings can be disruptive;

4. The civilizational costs associated with halting or reversing a swing are so very high that it's likely, though far from certain, that we will be better served simply spending all that money and time on accommodating the change as a given, rather than on preventing it.

5. Activity to halt or reverse a swing has a long delay time before its impact is seen. This is dangerous: As technology puts the capacity to reduce warming within our hands, we are likely to overcorrect.

Imagine if your steering wheel had a three second-delay before changes in its rotation were observable in the direction of your car. Imagine you're driving 70 mph on a straight highway and start drifting to the right, and you begin to correct back towards the left, and for three seconds you're still drifting rightward. The temptation to overcorrect is obvious, isn't it?

Now imagine it played out on a social time-scale: It's getting hotter and hotter, and the changes required to reverse the drift have been in place for a decade, but unfortunately have a 25-year lag. What, other than changes in political fashion will prevent us spending the next 15 years frantically impoverishing ourselves to solve a problem for which the only needed action has already been taken?

6. There are hidden costs, and there are apparent costs, to all courses of action. But the hidden costs are hidden, and their magnitude is not known or appreciated.

I add to this that climate science is as highly politicized on all sides as it could possibly be, unless it were also sex-and-gender related. Few statements or studies are trustworthy at face value. The only reliable way to know you're getting the straight skinny is when someone makes an admission of error or similarly speaks against interest. It's sad, but true. Find someone who's currently in a bad odor with their colleagues, and you've probably found a nugget to hold on to. Other than that? Y'makes yer bets and y'takes yer changes.

Posted by: R.C. | Jun 22, 2013 10:55:22 PM

The following is the crux of why I find the "AGW" argument so unpersuasive.

When there are again dairy farms in Greenland (Eric the Red, Leif Ericson, et. al), and those dairy farms maintain their existence for ~500 years then, and only then, will the temperature in Greenland match what is was from ~850CE - ~1350CE.

When there are again grape vineyards in Scotland (noted by Roman historians and King John), and those grape vineyards remain extant for ~500 years then, and only then, will the temperature in Scotland match what is was from ~850CE - 1350CE.

The dairy farms and the vineyards are known data points for the Medieval Climate Optimum. It is colder today than it was, for over 500 years, ~1000 years ago.

Posted by: Denver | Jun 22, 2013 9:26:48 PM

But it rings much more true and much more sound than either denialism or defeatism.

We can get to that phase of the argument once the data and the relationship of the climate models to reality is settled, which they aren't. Even The New Republic has noticed: Since 1998, the warmest year of the twentieth century, temperatures have not kept up with computer models that seemed to project steady warming; they’re perilously close to falling beneath even the lowest projections.


If the numbers go out of the range the models predict, questioning the accuracy of the model is a completely legitimate point to make.

Posted by: rosignol | Jun 22, 2013 9:18:14 PM

Jim and others in the "that's immoral" camp: calling Will's "pessimistic" argument "immoral" and "unconvincing" bears its own moral freight.

First, your argument about continuing to push energy reduction policies assumes a level of control that simply doesn't exist. For example, while the U.S. has significantly cut its hydrocarbon emissions over the past 20 years, other nations (e.g. India and China) have increased theirs by far more than we have cut. They have also indicated that they plan to continue doing so. There is simply no way you could make up for their gains by cutting enough from the U.S. energy budget. So what do you proposed to do? Would you have us declare war? Would you argue that that is the "moral" thing to do?

Second, the pessimistic argument implies the realist's position that the best thing to do with respect to any adverse consequences of AGW is to make sure that our infrastructure is hardened and our people are wealthy enough to deal with the costs of climate change. Fortunately, economic growth in the U.S. isn't dependent on energy growth because we have transitioned to a heavily information-centric economy. Thus, the realists have perhaps the only plausible strategy for dealing with the future effects of AGW: grow, even if it requires that we be a bit less aggressive about carbon reduction. This assumes, of course, that you aren't in the doomsday fringe with respect to AGW; an assumption I would hope is safe given this forum.

If you refuse to accept policies that grow the economy and harden our infrastructure; if you instead insist that we drive our people into rank poverty by depriving them of energy then, when the inevitable challenges come, the people that die will have done so for no other reason than to allow you to keep your illusion of control intact. Those in your camp may feel the smug satisfaction of "doing all you could do" but it will be hard to feed your grandchildren on smugness.

So, please, spare me the moral preening about the pessimists argument. I think they have a much more realistic and humane take on the world than you do.

Posted by: MDBritt | Jun 22, 2013 8:51:18 PM

You're correct about the conversation being stuck. Instead, we should be having a discussion centered around a construct such as this:

1. Are global temperatures warming?

2. Do the negative consequences of the change outweigh the positive consequences?

3. Can we do anything that will reverse the change?

4. Do the positive consequences of the action outweigh the negative consequences of doing nothing?

Whether any climate change is


Posted by: Bob Krumm | Jun 22, 2013 8:51:17 PM

I like the idea of a countdown to global warming falsification. Even if you're a scientist who is a true believer in the idea, it should not be controversial to study and keep a watch on what real world temp data would falsify the theory. But go ahead and try to get warmists to actually do so. It's like pulling teeth.

Posted by: TMLutas | Jun 22, 2013 8:49:48 PM

What damage has already been done? There is no evidence of any damage.

Posted by: Brian Macker | Jun 22, 2013 8:43:54 PM

Remember it's not the co2 that's supposedly the problem, it's the feedbacks. The warmist models assume great amplification of the mild warming caused strictly by the doubling of co2. Water vapor does the rest. Quite a reach to base trillions in solutions on positive feedback in a system with as many variables as the earth's climate. They're assuming a moister, more humid atmosphere...without any corresponding increase in cloud formation. The 16 year plateau in temps is clearly pointing to a climate dominated by negative feeedbacks...like clouds.

Posted by: Mike Mangan | Jun 22, 2013 8:39:09 PM

Hey, all you climate scientists out there, who can't accurately predict if it will rain tomorrow -- how much fossil fuel would we have to burn to raise the Pacific Ocean one half degree? And after we burned all that fuel, how long would it stay at that miniscule elevated temperature?

Secondly, what can we do to warm our winters? That would be really helpful, seems to me. Less need for burning fossil fuels and all.

Posted by: Koblog | Jun 22, 2013 8:35:14 PM

Global warming stopped more than a decade ago. Depending on which data source you use, there has been no statistically significant increase in global tempratures for 17, 15 or 13 years. None of the global climate models indicates that a pause in the rate of increase in temps lasting 17 years is physically possible. Moreover, no significant volcanic activity has occurred during this period which would explain the lack of warming. If the "consenus" were correct, this could not have happened.

Moreover, at the present moment all 73 existing climate models over-estmate the current temprature of the tropical troposhere. Unless a massive increase in global temps occurs in the three or four years the scientific "consenus" on global warming will have been falsified by measured global temprature.

Posted by: bmcburney | Jun 22, 2013 8:05:52 PM

Mr. Sherkow wrote, "I'd be more receptive to counterarguments if they didn't come from a camp that has historically been so 'anti-science.'" He might not be aware of a recent empirical study that looks at views on climate change and concludes, inter alia, that "[m]embers of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change." http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2193133.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Jun 22, 2013 7:48:36 PM

All the heating projections of the past decade plus have been wrong. This is a matter in which the old saw "don't just do something, stand there" applies. The warmist hand wringers don't have solutions they have rhetoric.

Posted by: Carl Langer | Jun 22, 2013 7:33:45 PM

I can affirm on my own knowledge that the warming scientists don't know what they claim to know.

In my checkered career in science, I've worked with the Navier Stokes equation, which we can't solve. It governs the atmosphere. So the scientists substutite an equation pulled from thin air that they can solve. That's not science and it doesn't work.

I've also worked with signal analysis, and one mathematical fact is that you can't distinguish cycles from trends with data short compared to the cycles. The eigenvalues of the distinguishing matrix explode, making every measurement useless, and not just slightly useless.

A cycle, of course, can't be man caused.

So, in short, based on my knowledge of tangential science, there's no data and no theory for man caused global warming.

Sociology has a better account of how this all happens: results follow the grants, but I'm not an expert on that.

Posted by: rhhardin | Jun 22, 2013 7:22:33 PM

Logically you are correct. In reality you are wrong. The fiction aka known as anthropogenic climate change is about political control, not science. As long as the politicians and ruling class can amass power and money adopting it, the "debate" will rage on.

Posted by: Dantes | Jun 22, 2013 7:17:37 PM

Lomborg has been making that argument for years too.

Speaking of anti-science, NPR shouldn't use phrases like "despite the crazy weather last year" unless it wants to discredit itself.

Posted by: anon | Jun 22, 2013 7:16:20 PM

Jake --

Conservative Jim Manzi has made precisely that argument, time and time again, both in National Review and the New Republic. See, e.g., http://www.newrepublic.com/blog/critics/75757/why-the-decision-tackle-climate-change-isn%E2%80%99t-simple-al-gore-says .

Posted by: WT | Jun 22, 2013 2:31:31 PM

I'd be more receptive to counterarguments if they didn't come from a camp that has historically been so "anti-science." To extent the "We can't do anything about it" case is a conservative one, I think it's particularly suspicious that the same group's former arguments were, "The scientists are lying and they've got their facts wrong." The shifting sands on this debate frankly call for an examination into the motives of people making them.

But enough of the above. The conservative argument here is pretty simple--and I'm flabbergasted as to why it isn't made. It goes like this: "Respected scientists have told us global warming is real and that it's man-made. We believe them. And we also believe that it's a serious problem, and that, at least in the abstract we could of course 'do something' about it. But that doesn't end the policy debate. Because the policy debate isn't about whether we can do something about it, it's whether it's worth it. And right now, the cost-benefit analysis dictates that it's just simply not worth it. Our country has a number of problems that also require our attention, and the reality is we just don't have enough to go around. And every time a problem, even a serious problem, rears its head, that's not enough of a case to expand the federal government. Global warming--although real, man-made, and serious--just can't be the top of our priority chart given our financial situation."

To be clear, I'm not supporting this view. But it rings much more true and much more sound than either denialism or defeatism.

Posted by: Jake Sherkow | Jun 22, 2013 2:20:31 PM

Typos are not immoral. They reflect having the right priorities. I say this as the king of typos. The fact that it is immoral to do one thing or another does not mean there are not competing moral considerations. I know morals are supposed to be matters of principle but there is no escaping the fact that they clash and ultimately have to be weighed against each other. For example, we could take all the money used to address global warming and cure the dread diseases that exist today. You make the point that choices need to be made. That does not mean that morals are not involved in many of them. Philosophers and some law professors play with these ideas all the time -- would you push a person in front of a car in order to possibly save 20 others, etc. What is immoral is the view that I will do nothing to avoid a disaster because it might not help. Instead, that is simply a rationalization.

Posted by: Jeff Harrison | Jun 22, 2013 1:02:03 PM

I could entertain an actual debate on the morality of ignoring global warming. Perhaps you could make a utilitarian argument to that effect; I don't know that any other approach could justify it. Rejecting the very idea of morality, however, is not worthy of a response.

Posted by: Jim | Jun 22, 2013 12:56:45 PM

The amount of typos in my previous post are immoral.

Posted by: Dylan Alexander | Jun 22, 2013 12:47:32 PM

"But on the topic, I think the probabilities cut very much in favor of doing something even if is the case that we do not know. What ever probability there is that we could successfully intervene may be low but it would be multiplied by an infinitely high number for the harm avoided."

This can be applied to any number of theoretical harms. Why aren't we spending 50% of GDP (or 75%?) to protect against potential global warming, catastrophic asteroid impacts, or the rise of a series of global pandemics? Why is the moral case for (maybe) increasing utility for future generations a case for outlawing abortion or forcing women to bear a minimum number of children? If the problem is overpopulation and population density in vulnerable areas, why isn't the correct thing to support (or force!) dropping Bangladesh's birthrate far below replacement?

Notice I said "correct," not moral.

Appeals to "immorality" are a chicken shit appeal to emotion and the passions of the mob, and it will incentivize the other side with their opposing view of evil. (Every abortion doctor killed or threatened was suffered so for his immorality, naturally.) No one has a consistent view of morality beyond "what I don't like," and everyone of us believes in moral precepts that are objectively incompatible with some of our policy preferences.

To some extent it's embarrassing to see people who would in other areas appeal to logic and reason resort to demonization, but as I someone who thinks logic and reason point the other way, I'm heartened by this evidence you know you're losing on that battlefield.

Posted by: Dylan Alexander | Jun 22, 2013 12:46:04 PM

I'd like to see this same concern with "immorality" and hypothetical costs to uncertain and future others over real, immediate costs to existing people applied consistently to abortion. But that won't let you feel superior to the right people, I guess.

Posted by: Dylan Alexander | Jun 22, 2013 12:23:02 PM

If we were able to do something at little to no cost, it would be worth doing. As costs increase, so does the burden on advocates to show not only the importance but also effectiveness of proposed changes. Will's view is entirely reasonable.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jun 22, 2013 11:40:22 AM

Thank goodness for "smart" law professors as opposed, I guess, to all the others. That appeal to authority is actually not very appealing. But on the topic, I think the probabilities cut very much in favor of doing something even if is the case that we do not know. What ever probability there is that we could successfully intervene may be low but it would be multiplied by an infinitely high number for the harm avoided. That number in terms of harm avoided would always be higher than the expected cost. I agree the argument is also immoral. What it suggests is that we have the right to affect the lives of others and, in fact, all living things because the cost is to high -- use them as a means to our ends of avoiding present day costs. We do this without their consent. It's an arrogance and immoral position.

Posted by: Jeff Harrison | Jun 22, 2013 11:39:41 AM

What's unpersuasive is the idea "it's not clear there's anything we as individuals or we as a country are really equipped to do about it." Neither is it clear that we are not equipped to do anything about it. Do we require certainty of success before even making the effort to try? Ten, or even five years ago how many people thought that the gay marriage would be widely accepted? How many people at the beginning of the civil rights era thought that segregation would never change?

What's immoral is the idea that, if change appears unlikely, we should simply ignore the problem.

Posted by: Jim | Jun 22, 2013 10:42:19 AM

Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that this was required by "balance," just that the results were much less interesting than they could have been, and less interesting than the (incredibly high) norm on T.A.L.

But I'd love to hear more about why this view is so unpersuasive! It would be great not to be a pessimist about this issue.

Posted by: William Baude | Jun 22, 2013 10:20:23 AM

New Standard for "Balance" on This American Life: If an argument has been "articulated by at least one [unnamed] smart law professor," it should be given equal time . . . no matter how cynical and unpersuasive the argument might be, and no matter that it is predicated on the idea that "our current political institutions" -- institutions controlled by officials and others willing to publicly insist, and persuade half the public, that the problem doesn't really exist -- are incapable of *entirely* ameliorating a worldwide problem, and are not likely to change anytime soon.

What *was* Ira Glass thinking when he chose to exile such views from his show?

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Jun 22, 2013 10:15:01 AM

What Jim said.

Posted by: Jim von der Heydt | Jun 22, 2013 8:52:52 AM

Jim, it's not "we might not succeed," it's "there's no reasonable chance of success." But it's not even that except as a poor linguistic approximation, you need to boil it down to p values and expected outcomes. The fact that you even raise "immorality" and split linguistic hairs just shows why you (and the vast majority of humanity) are not capable of having this conversation and considering it rationally.

Will, I've been preaching this gospel of futility for years, and no one ever engages with it. Both sides are driven mostly by emotional needs and team competition, not serious analysis of the issue and solutions. The Robin Hansonian viewpoint is too tiny and too alien to make any impact on this conversation.

Posted by: Dylan Alexander | Jun 22, 2013 8:09:37 AM

"We might not succeed in ameliorating this disaster, so we can just forget about it" may be the least convincing and most immoral argument I've ever heard.

Posted by: Jim | Jun 22, 2013 7:48:10 AM

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