Archive for October 20th, 2009


Baby-Avoidance Carbon Credits

October 20, 2009

New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin unwittingly stirred up a blustery breath-storm in the steamy halitosis-swamp governed by right-wing bombast Rush Limbaugh when he asked, rhetorically, whether families should be compensated for not having babies. Media Matters has the full story. Among  those to cry foul, friend and colleague Tom Yulsman rightly takes Limbaugh to task.  Maybe I’ll do the same in a future post.  For now, on to more pressing matters.

In Revkin’s original dot earth blogpost, he poses a thought experiment. As a philosopher, I ♥ thought experiments. We philosophers eat thought experiments for breakfast, take them along with us as nutritional supplements, and frequently use them to cap off our long evenings. Unfortunately for Limbaugh, thought experiments require thought, which I think rules them off of his cognitive platter.  Here’s what Revkin has to say:

I recently raised the question of whether this means we’ll soon see a market in baby-avoidance carbon credits similar to efforts to sell  CO2 credits for avoiding deforestation.

Good question.  Rhetorical, but good.  The answer should be ‘no’ in both cases.  You do not get social props for doing something that you’re supposed to do anyway.  If you do something that you’re not supposed to do, you can get blamed, or get fined, or get in trouble, or have your eyeballs eaten out by fire ants, but nobody should be in the business of rewarding do-gooders for not behaving badly.  There are an infinite number of things that I could be doing right now, many of which are quite terrible.  It is moral insanity to suggest that somehow I should have legions of folks beating down my door to reward me for not doing them.  Revkin obviously knows this, which is why he poses the thought experiment in the first place.  (There may be other reasons he poses the thought experiment too, but I’ll ignore those for the time being.)

The notion of baby-avoidance carbon credits calls to mind the much more serious proposals that were a part of the once-electric regulatory takings debate, and particularly proposals to legislate fulfillment of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion.  This was all predicated on a similar sort of moral insanity.

Opportunity costs, like Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, are a theoretical construct.  We cannot trace out costs according to alternate possible universes when those possible universes branch out from our individual decisions; and, more importantly, we ought not to legislate as if we could.

It does make sense, however, to try to find ways to encourage people to have fewer children.  It is conceivable that, in a fit of political spinning, these ways might be characterized as credits, but as with all policy outcomes, the population reduction mechanisms could come in many forms, including straight incentives, draconian laws, or positive externalities associated with improved educational systems (for instance).


Oh, I Guess It’s Okay Then

October 20, 2009

Greenwire reports that a new study reveals how global warming could spur growth in Northwest forests.  Here’s a relevant clip:

Overall, forest productivity could increase about 7 percent annually in forests west of the Cascade Range and 20 percent in forests east of them under one scenario that researchers said largely reflects current trends of energy use, globalization and economic growth. However, the study did not take into account management practices, disease, insects and fire, which can affect productivity and could also be affected by climate change.

The study was published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management.

This is all interesting and important research, of course; and it’s very important to anyone interested in adaptation, mitigation, or remediation, but ultimately it’s a distraction from the wicked problem that characterizes climate change.  The problem with climate change isn’t that any given environment will be made better or worse, nor that the world as a whole will be made better or worse, but that as a collective of human beings, we’re doing something that’s making the world better or worse, and this something that we’re doing can’t be justified.  There’s much more to say on this issue, on the issue of justification, for instance, but I won’t do that here.  For now, let’s just say that focusing on whether it is all bad, only somewhat bad, or maybe even good, starts the entire conversation off on the wrong foot.


Spare Me, Bobo

October 20, 2009

CrazyMonkey.jpg Crazy Monkey image by cullyman07Arg and grumble. Bobo’s at it again. What in the holy name of wilde things is he talking about? Here, enjoy a taste:

In this view, what you might call the philosopher’s view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits…The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character.

Which philosopher, exactly, thinks that people have “one permanent thing called character”? I can’t think of anyone who thinks that character is a thing; nor can I think of anyone who thinks that it is a permanent thing. Perhaps David Brooks thinks such nonsense.  Perhaps the monkey on cocaine (above, right) thinks such nonsense.  Perhaps David Brooks and the very happy monkey are related. One thing’s for sure: very few, if any, notable philosophers think this.

But it gets worse…

Read the rest of this entry ?


Do Quotes Grow on Plants?

October 20, 2009

Romm has stepped on the toes of journalists and academics in the past, and he’s just recently done so again by allegedly planting quotes.  Roger Pielke Jr. has the scoop, and Keith Kloor follows suit, and Brad DeLong is all crazy up in the house.  Fascinating reading, all told… but the jabs are thrown almost too fast to catch up.

The finger-pointing stems from the claim that Joe Romm over at Climate Progress prodded Ken Caldeira to say that Levitt and Dubner’s new book is an “inaccurate portrayal of me,” where “me” = Caldeira.  I’ll be honest and confess that I don’t have a clue what current journalistic standards are.  That’s not my area.  But it does seem to me that Romm could’ve been quite a bit more cautious with his language.  At the same time, I’m not sure that his lack of caution implies much about any of his other points on Levitt and Dubner’s book.  I’ll have to read the book to see.

The sideshow, if I’ve gathered correctly — and I gather primarily from Roger — is that Romm sent out a fishing line to Caldeira saying “I’d like a quote like ‘The authors of SuperFreakonomics have utterly misrepresented my work,’ plus whatever else you want to say.” Apparently, this quote was not to be had.  Instead, what he got was some kind of agreement (tacit or otherwise) from Caldeira that Romm then translated into a flashy headline on his blogpost.

As a philosopher, I’m not one to throw out charges of spinning and lying as easily as some. I can think of several explanations for Romm’s actions that don’t fall into the lying category. It’s harder to think of explanations that remove the charge that Romm was spinning.  Even still, as I’ve mentioned multiple times in the past, I prefer the principle of charity.  I think we can give Romm the benefit of the doubt.  Roger likes to tease me about the principle of charity, but I take it pretty seriously, as do many philosophers.

So here’s my thinking.  It was wrong for Romm to put Caldeira’s words in quotes, but it was not wrong to attribute the position to Caldeira.  There’s a use-mention error here.  Though not truly a use-mention error, I think it’s close enough to get the point:

(1) Caldeira says his work was utterly misrepresented

(2) Caldeira says his “work was utterly misrepresented.”

Statement (1) is True.  Statement (2) is False.

Romm could’ve done far better by simply saying that Calderia agrees (provided that Caldeira does agree) that the authors of Superfreakonomics had utterly misrepresented his work.  In both cases, of course, the view can be attributed to Caldeira.  It’s not clear what Romm gains, apart from a shorter title for his blogpost, by using the quotation marks instead of the attribution.  It is very clear that he loses a great deal by using the quotes improperly.

IMHO, there’s nothing to get one’s feathers ruffled about here, but the kerfuffle does raise questions not so much about journalistic integrity, as much as about the extent to which truth claims can distract from the main issues.   Quoting is tricky business, as is making a cogent argument.


GeoEngineering Follow-up

October 20, 2009

space_mirror.jpgThe talk with Steve Rayner went well yesterday.  It was fun, albeit too short to offer any real commentary.

One question I have for readers is what they (you) think about GeoEngineering. My view is that in almost all climatic circumstances, we shouldn’t deploy geoengineering technologies. (Note: like Rayner, I’m hesitant to clump all geoengineering technologies into one category, as things can get mighty confusing; so, for instance, Rayner and I disagree that ambient air capture and storage should be considered a geoengineering technology.  I think it shouldn’t, he thinks it should.  But this is another question.)

On whole, I think we ought not to engage in projects aimed at steering the earth’s climate.  I think geoengineering is morally impermissible.  I think this is true regardless of whether climate change will be catastrophic or whether it will make the world better for people.  I also think it’s true whether climate change is anthropogenic or natural.  I tried to touch on these views in my short commentary, and specifically on what makes geoengineering impermissible, but there just wasn’t enough time.

One issue that I think really does bear more discussion, and maybe that I struggle with myself, is the extent to which, on one hand, all actions can be understood as “engineering the climate,” and on the other hand, none of these actions are in fact “engineering the climate.”  So, for instance, some people object to my view by saying that we’re already in the business of engineering the climate.  They counter that every time I drive my car, my action, however minor, functions to change atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.  That’s true, of course, but to my mind, my action of driving my car doesn’t pass qualifying muster as a form of geoengineering.  To say that it does would be like saying that fixing my bedroom door qualifies as building my house.  It’s true that I’m contributing to the construction of my house when I fix my door, but I’m just fixing my door, I’m not building my house.  These distinctions matter in geoengineering too.

There’s a difference, for instance, between planting a forest in order to steer atmospheric concentrations of carbon back down to historical levels, and planting a forest to harvest later for wood.  Similarly, there’s a difference between planting a forest for geoengineering purposes and planting a forest to restore a forest that was once in place.  I think the latter practices are permissible, where the former practice of geoengineering is impermissible, even though the two acts may be practically the same.

Any thoughts on this?