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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


existential threat

via the washington note, a wonderful analysis of climate change that draws on the philosoophical historical and archaeological tradition of declinism that includes foucault, spengler, toynbee, barzun, paul kennedy, tainter and more recently samuel huntington and jared diamond.

Every political, social and economic system ever created has sooner or later encountered a challenge that its very nature has made it incapable of meeting. The Confucian ruling system of imperial China, which lasted for more than 2,000 years, has some claim still to be the most successful in history, but because it was founded on values of stability and continuity, rather than dynamism and inventiveness, it eventually proved unable to survive in the face of Western imperial capitalism.

For market economies, and the Western model of democracy with which they have been associated, the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system. As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.

If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests.

indeed, it seems to me that the west will be remembered with a great deal more nostalgia than that. the scattered seeds of this dying civilization will probably bear fruit, just as the collapse of the hellenic world gave birth to it. but it takes little imagination to envision the infrastrucutre of western civility refusing to adapt thanks to overwhelming complexity, complacency and inertia.

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So do you believe global warming is occurring now, or do you just agree with the philosophical tone of the article?

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the philosophical viewpoint that underlies the article -- that civilizations collapse for an inability to face the challenges that confront it -- is attractive to me, anon, and one with a profound empirical/historical backing.

as to whether global warming is a reality -- in rejecting the certitude of scientism i'm forced to say that i don't know -- but in accepting the premise of a rational, empirical and falsifiable science that the probability grows somewhat higher with advancing years and observations. a great deal of social effort has been put into observing climate and the traces left by past climate in the last few years, and the results of those observations are not promising.

the irreducable complexity of global climate still, i think, poses a formidable (insurmountable, really) barrier -- no one can say with certainty what the future climate will be. most any competent climatologist will admit as much, in my experience. but then, which of us is ever privileged to act on certainty? it's never happened to me in my lifetime.

the fact is that our best empirically-derived estimates of the probabilities of global warming are disturbing and growing moreso -- and have come to warrant action.

i say this last particularly considering a balance of risk and reward.

if we don't act and manmade warming is close to or worse than predictions, where does that leave us? very much where anatol lieven describes, methinks. if we act and it is much less than prediction, where are we? no worse off than our recent climatological history, i suspect. if we don't act and it is less, we have still had some effect -- after all, the world is different for the indisputable existence of amospheric industrial gases -- but we can live with it. if we act and it is what we thought, i expect we have saved western civilization from a collapsed and dark age.

this would itself suggest easily to go forward with mitigation -- but it of course ignores cost. as it turns out, however, the cost is really very minimal -- 1% of global gdp, by the economist's estimate. considering the tail risk, this is a trifle.

so while one can argue the scientific merit of climate change as we now presume to know it, the balance of the risks and a cost-benefit analysis are crushing to the skeptic's case.

the last truly valid refuge, it seems to me, of a skeptic is to argue that the wealth could be better spent on other projects such as alleviating poverty or funding third-world irrigation. but again, i think the tail risk of climate change is so overwhelming in its implications that it simply cannot be ignored. if we do nothing and survive as a civilization whatever climate change does bring, it will have been a considerable spot of luck.

moreover, while there is a valid ethical argument over the actions resulting from the probability of global warming, there is also an ethical argument in favor of accepting responsibility for one's deeds that runs deep in the repositories of accumulated human wisdom. the idea that a rational man can ignore the consequences of his actions -- even if those consequences are possibly but not certainly benign -- is a detrimental one to our civilization. one can argue that even if global warming comes to nothing, it is our moral responsibility to clean up our own mess, as it were.

none of this is to dismiss the quasireligious features of the more extreme brand of climate apocalysm, which are apparent -- nor is it to dismiss the existence of institutional interests in keeping grant money flowing. but neither of these is a remotely adequate means of dismissing climate change. the lunatic fringe exists on either side of the debate and should characterize neither -- and the institutional interests that oppose the dialogue climate change are clearly vastly better organized and better funded than any advocacy. indeed, suppressing climate change as a political concept has become a crusade similar to that which tobacco companies once engaged in to "demonstrate" that cigarettes were completely safe and non-addictive.

fwiw, i've gone back and tagged every mention of global warming here with climate -- peruse if you like.

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