Nonstop SillinessOctober 30, 2009
Levitt and Dubner apparently don’t back down. Here’s their article from Wednesday’s USA Today. I’m sure they’re selling a lot of books, but in doing so, they’re being disingenuous: acting one way and simultaneously decrying what they’re doing; doing ethics and claiming not to do ethics. For what follows, I’ll ignore their scientific claims. As I’ve said, I’m not qualified to criticize the climate science. Let’s just start here, with their scenario:
Imagine for a moment that a terrible, unforeseen threat to humankind had suddenly arisen, one so grave that it endangered the very future of the planet. Two teams of respected scientists immediately set to work, trying to find a solution to the impending disaster.
The first set of scientists returned with a potential solution, but it had some shortcomings. It was expensive, with a price tag in the trillions of dollars. It also required nearly every human being on the planet to change his or her behavior in fundamental ways. And even if the scientists’ scheme worked, it would take decades for the benefits to be felt.
The second set of scientists returned with a very different answer. Their solution cost less than one-thousandth as much to implement and did not require anyone to change his behavior. The scientists could get their solution up and running in roughly a year, with the benefits to be felt immediately. And if the simple fix turned out to not work as expected, it was quickly and easily reversible.
First, their comparison stacks the deck in favor of option two, suggesting that climate change is sudden and unforseen. Nearest I know, climate change is not at all like that. It will unfold over decades, where our individual decisions will make a difference as those decades unfold. It’s not an impending cataclysm, and we shouldn’t pretend or act like it is. Inapt comparisons are likely to lead to incredibly draconian policy solutions.
Second, the first set of options doesn’t necessarily require every human being on the planet to change his or her behavior in fundamental ways. Broad public policies can be implemented that will shift the balance of GHG output without widespread impacts on individual actions. Maybe Levitt and Dubner mean that, as a result of these actions, prices will change, and in doing so, our behavior will change. But if that’s the case, geoengineering will also require every human being on the planet to change his or her behavior in fundamental ways, since the ways in which we’ll be changing the planet will presumably change behavior. If it rains when it wasn’t going to rain, that’ll change what we do.
There’s more to the weakness of this comparison, but I’ll spare you.
Instead, let’s ignore all that. Let’s just take their silly example on its face.
On its face, the second set of scientists appears to have the clear and winning solution. Nobody has to change their behavior. It’s cheap. It works. It’s fast. Awesome. Ethics is easy! (Even though, mea culpa, Levitt and Dubner are not doing ethics.)
Alas, we’re given no details about the means through which the solution functions. This relates in part to the aptness of the comparison, of course (and facts matter here, since L&D are using the comparison to urge us to accept one set of real-world solutions over another); but it also relates to the upshot of their claim. To help see how their example smuggles in a bunch of moral assumptions, strip the scenario of any link to the geoengineering proposals they discuss. If the scientists’ chosen solution allows something terrible, then maybe we should re-think whether it’s the morally better alternative.
Is it a final solution, for instance? Maybe their clever solution is this: Nuke China. That’s a great scientific solution! Meets all of the criteria — cheap, fast, functional, and nobody has to change his or her behavior.
What? No likey? Uneasy about that ambient radiation? No sweat. How about a deadly pandemic instead? That’d do it too. What if we open that door? C’mon. No muss, no fuss.
Nope? Still worried about those solutions?
Here’s something a bit less risky: just let millions of people starve to death. Outrageous? None less than the great biologist Garret Hardin proposed such a solution, much to the excoriation of the ethical community.
Still have problems with those wacky proposals (maybe they grate against your view of human rights)? Perhaps then we can find something more fantastical, involving non-human changes to our friendly globe. No problems with human rights there.
What if the solution to global warming involves killing all of the fish in the ocean; or, better yet, painting the mountains and rivers a shiny white? Should we do that?
Suppose that we could. Suppose that our intrepid team of scientists suggests that if we just paint all of the rocks on every continent white, we could stave off global warming and continue living just as we always have. Nobody would have to lift a finger. We could paint the mountains and roads by hiring leagues of zombie boy scouts. The government would handle everything. Might even be nice to see the Grand Canyon all dolled up Christo-style. Could inspire a new wave of tourism. Would that then be a good solution?
I say no.
Oh, sure, you can go on for quite a while talking about the “environmental costs” of painting all of the mountains white — I’m sure our economist friends would — but that’s not what concerns me. What concerns me is that steering the climate in this way, even though it may bring our climate to stability, opens many, many doors to violate the rights and interests of other people. I say more on that here.
Point being, it’s not just that D&L’s comparison is inapt, but that the logic supporting their preferred resolution is extremely weak. Because the thought experiment is intended to bring us to the conclusion that we should prefer or entertain geoengineering solutions over other solutions, we not only need to have an apt comparison, but we also have to know more about what the wise scientists suggest. Simply bringing about a stable climate through a clever engineering strategy is nowhere near enough to permit such an action.
Incidentally, I think Deltoid is stretching to find a lede when he says that L&D “liken climate scientists to flat earthers.” I think he’s maybe even doing so when he says that the image is of a flat earth. The point can be argued, but it doesn’t strike me as important.