Sunday, May 25, 2008

In the newest issue of The New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson has an incredibly frustrating article on a couple pieces of global warming literature. Pretending to have transcended the controversy by taking the completely chimerical "middle ground," Dyson reviews two books on global warming policy, A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies by William Nordhaus and Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto, edited by Ernesto Zedillo. Dyson spends most of the article reviewing the Nordhaus book, which uses a mathematical model called the Dynamic Integrated Model of Climate and the Economy (DICE) to look at the economic impact of various global warming policies: Kyoto Protocols, "business-as-usual," meaning non-action, "optimal policy," which consists in "a worldwide tax on carbon emissions adjusted each year to give the maximum aggregate economic gain as calculated by DICE," Al Gore's plan of gradual reductions in emissions, and Nicholas Stern's legal framework to pose strict limitations on carbon emissions. Nordhaus finds that while the "optimal policy" would lead to a 3 trillion dollar gain over the do-nothing approach (over a hundred year period) and the Kyoto Protocols to a 1 trillion dollar gain, the Gore and Stern policies would lead to 15-20 trillion dollar losses.
Dyson accepts Nordhaus's conclusion, and takes the next step of suggesting that technology, specifically bio-technology, will answer all our prayers. We will develop carbon-eating plants that can be controlled, which will lead to a drastic reduction in carbon, the opening of multiple new markets, and peace and prosperity for all. For me, the main problem of Nordhaus's argument is not even suggested in Dyson's reading. Dyson tells us that Nordhaus uses a simple economic measurement of dollar growth over time, to show that, in a hundred years, the dollar will increase in value a certain amount, and that each dollar spent today to save us from global warming has to be able to justify itself against its future value.
For example, the value of one dollar invested at an average interest rate of 4 percent for a period of one hundred years would be fifty-four dollars; this owuld be the future value of one dollar in one hundred years' time. Therefore, for every dollar spent now on a particular strategy to fight global warming, the investmetn must reduce the damage caused by warming by an amount that exceeds fifty-four dollars in one hundred years' time to accrue a positive economic benefit to society.
The assumption here is that global warming is not catastrophic, even if Dyson claims the opposite when he tells us that "The great virtue of Nordhaus's economic analysis is that it remains valid whether the majority [i.e., those who believe that global warming is potentially catastrophic] view is right or wrong." Yes and no. Nordhaus's model could continue to apply even if global warming were potentially catastrophic, but we would have to take two further things into account--first, the value of a dollar-investment would shrink rather than grow. The fact that the value of the dollar-investments would shrink means that spending now would be significantly more important than long-term money-making investment. This is why short-selling works: if you know something is going to crash in the future, it is better to be profligate now. Second, and this is related, if global warming is catastrophic, then Nordhaus needs to calculate the human costs of allowing global warming to continue. Nordhaus's conclusions are utterly dependent upon the absence of catastrophic global warming.

Dyson's review of the second book is little more than an opportunity for him to give us sound bytes about why global warming shouldn't be taken as seriously as it is. The quotes he takes from Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto all emphasize "Global Warming: the Myth": "Actual observations suggest that the sensitivity of the real climate is much less than that found in computer models whose sensitivity depends on processes that are clearly misrepresented." Really? Like the actual heating of the earth due to carbon in the atmosphere? That must just be an oversensitive model. Also, "Climate change may not be the world's most pressing problem (as I am convinced it is not)." In other words, Dyson takes quotes out of the Kyoto book only in order to "cast doubt" on the seriousness of global warming. He hastily dismisses the UK's stance as "mere" politics:
Howard Dalton, spokesman for the British government, is the most dogmatic... The United Kingdom has made up its mind and takes the view that any individuals who disagree with government policy should be ignored. This dogmatic tone is also adopted by the Royal Society, the British equivalent of the US National Academy of Sciences.
This is how Dyson turns the issue from one of science to one of politics, where he clearly falls in the libertarian camp. Notice the use of "government policy" as a phrase to distract us from global warming and focus our attention on government and its top-down, anti-democratic policies.
The final paragraphs are the most frustrating, because this is where Dyson firmly pretends to be above the controversy. The most laughable lines in the entire essay are the following:
All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific.
Up to now, I had been following Dyson, disagreeing at times, but keeping my ears open for new information. Slavoj Zizek recently made a similar claim that ecology "is the ideal candidate for hegemonic ideology." Both arguments entirely miss the point. For Dyson and Zizek alike, the fear of global warming catastrophe distracts us from more important issues. For Zizek, this is invariably class struggle and the fight against capitalism. For Dyson, it is "bigger" issues:
Many of the [global warming] skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice.
Dyson, a nuclear activist, probably sees the first hazard as the most significant one. What is not recognized by either Zizek or Dyson is that the global warming catastrophe, if it were to occur, would exacerbate social injustice and render class struggle secondary to the struggle for life. Joseph Romm, an environmental researcher and author of the blog of suggests that at levels between 800 to 1000 PPM of carbon in the atmosphere, we would see a "sea level rise of 80 to 250 feet at a rate of 6 inches a decade"; "desertification of one third of the planet and drought over half the planet"; and "70% of all species going extinct plus extreme ocean acidification." Unlike people like Dyson, Romm sees this as entirely possible because, at 550 PPM, a great deal of the permafrost in the arctic tundra would melt, letting loose a great deal of the carbon trapped under that permafrost, leading to rapid growth in the level of carbon in the atmosphere.
With these conditions, it is a safe bet to say that those nations with great deals of wealth would be far more likely to be able to build things like industrial-sized greenhouses, levies, and weather-proofed housing that would protect them, to a greater degree, from the ravages of climate change. Those in the poorer nations and island nations would be far more unable to protect themselves from famine and flooding. The problem with people like Zizek and Dyson is that, much like their conservative counterparts, they view environmentalism as something that is fundamentally sentimental. Environmentalists are, as Dyson tells us, a religious lot, who believe in the sacredness of the earth and humanity's duty of stewardship. Unlike us hard-headed, economics-minded realists (or, in Zizek's case, us critical, unsentimental leftists), environmentalists get weepy about polar bears and owls and have meditation sessions in the woods. What they don't recognize is that environmentalists also think about class struggle, social injustice, and economic efficiency, but they realize that in certain limit-cases, all those things can be thrown out the window.


Tim C said...

But isn't it nice to be surprised by an article in the NYRB? I cancelled my subscription because every piece on current events was just the conventional wisdom of the liberal blogosphere written up in stately prose. (If "Bush" was anywhere in the headline, I knew exactly what was going to follow.) I may be liberal, but I don't have an unlimited appetite for smug liberalism.

As far as "environmentalism as religion" is concerned, I do get the impression that global warming provides a form of subconscious relief to aging leftists, simply because it allows them to retain their faith in the malevolence of Western power and industry. After the "End of History" and the triumph of liberal democracy, leftists probably felt a mixture of dismay and vindication when it became apparent that late capitalism and runaway consumerism might end up destroying the world after all.

Of course, this isn't provable, so naturally it would be hotly disputed. It's not moral indictment of leftists either; it's natural to feel subconscious relief when one's ideological biases are shown to be correct in the abstract, even if such a demonstration means that people will be harmed. (For the obverse, see the left's tepid response to the dramatic reduction of violence in Iraq after "the Surge.") As long as one comes to recognize these emotional investments and works to overcome them, it's not a moral indictment, as I said.

Alex Greenberg said...

Wow, Tim, I'm sorry I didn't see this comment when I wrote the post. "After the 'End of History' and the triumph of liberal democracy"! You say that like you mean it actually has any validity. What end of history? What triumph of liberal democracy? Not even Fukuyama believes in that horse shit anymore. Moreover, one doesn't need global warming to see evidence of the malevolence of Western power and industry. One just needs to lift one's fucking eyes from one's macbook (or maybe go to the right websites on one's macbook) to see slums piling up in industrial urban centers, starvation and famine running rampant despite the existence of ameliorative capabilities, and industrial waste being pumped into poor communities around the globe, including the U.S. I honestly don't know what you're talking about. I think you've jumped the shark.

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