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Monday, April 09, 2007


richard lindzen

newsweek ran in this issue an overview of global warming with a contribution from richard lindzen.

this writer, for one, refuses to recycle. the stuff heads to a landfill regardless. someone has to come up with a viable and profitable use for my empty diet coke bottles before it makes any sense. and the landfill of today is the mine of tomorrow. what ends up recycled out of my household is the doing of my very tired wife.

but that doesn't make lindzen right. his m.o. has as much or more to do with being a contrarian than with positive science -- he has called the association between smoking and lung cancer "weak", for example, and smokes avidly as if to agitate the point. one can respect that -- i love nothing if not running against the grain in search of wisdom -- but one has to take his views with that knowledge. he's never posited an idea of where climate change is going, though he acknowledges it exists. he serves only as a critic.

as a well-known critic, he's obviously right about some things. it's easy to criticize the models climatologists use, which (as i've long said) have more in common with a tennis ball on a string than the earth. and there's no refuting statements like

Looking back on the earth's climate history, it's apparent that there's no such thing as an optimal temperature—a climate at which everything is just right.


There is no evidence, for instance, that extreme weather events are increasing in any systematic way

and it's maybe even plausible to say

Overall, the risk of sea-level rise from global warming is less at almost any given location than that from other causes, such as tectonic motions of the earth's surface.

and this writer for one think american notions of ethanol from corn -- a net energy-comsuming, not -producing, process -- are utterly ridiculous and little more than politically convenient. (make ethanol from sugar or not at all -- right now it's the only sensible way.)

but none of that is proof against the potentiality of manmade climate change. moreover, statements like this

A warmer climate could prove to be more beneficial than the one we have now.

invite accusations of bias and complacency. the world we live in is arranged to our sea level; our cities are located on shores, and billions of people live in flood plains. to ignore this is folly -- sea level rises of the kind discussed by the ipcc would be devastating in many highly populated world centers. it might be just jolly for ivory-tower mit meteorologists and siberian farmers, but for 200 million bangladeshis it will be the initiation of a volkerwanderung that will send asia into decades of political turmoil similar in nature to the palestinian problem.

and such potentialities are not implausible. indeed, while one can suppose that the ipcc is exaggerating the threat of global warming as lindzen does, that there are feeback mechanisms that tend to keep climate in a steady state, there is also the possibility that there are significant feedback mechanisms that facilitate rapid state changes -- and there is no knowing whether we are close to one or not. the history of the earth is one of specatacular climate variation; the complex system clearly does lurch between radically different states.

here is the great fault of the climate change skeptics (including lindzen): an ignorance of tail risk. could things turn out just fine? sure. but that really isn't the material question. it is instead: what if they don't? do we need insurance?

this is the issue, imo -- one must appreciate that the implications of global warming are quite probably civilization-ending, particularly for the ossified west. even if there is just a 10% chance -- a probability that lindzen would have to permit -- that the ipcc reports are right, we should reasonably undertake to manage the climate as best we can.

we all purchase health insurance as young people on the tail risk of ending up needing a liver transplant or something, the odds of which are miniscule. why does any young person buy health insurance? or homeowners insurance? or car insurance? after all, 95% of us spend more on it than we will ever get out of it. the answer is because of the affordable cost and the looming threat of tail risk.

people like lindzen are arguing -- in exactly the fashion that he does with smoking -- that as things are we probably aren't going to get sick, therefore we don't need health insurance.

that betrays something very dark about what lindzen and people like him represent, imo -- there is a recklessness and death drive about the viewpoint that calls into question the commitment to civility of the people espousing it.

for the rest of us, the economist estimates that taking such steps would have an implementation cost of about 1% of global gdp. that is a trivial amount to pay for what is probably civilizational life insurance.

so why aren't we fighting to pay it? largely because western governments are slaves to commerce. the problem isn't moral, scientific, technological or economic -- it is political, and yet another symptom of the ossification.

it seems to me that the only valid counterargument -- which is one i don't hear anyone make -- is that our engineering the environment even in just an effort to reverse changes we think we've made may increase the tail risk or the risk profile generally because we don't know what the hell we're doing and probably cannot know. we presume that reversing our inputs means a reversion to the previous state or something like it, but in a complex system that is far from assured. this is a genuinely grave concern -- but continuing the industrial stimulus seems to me more likely to produce a state change than eliminating it.

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