Thursday, June 22, 2006

Global Warming and the 99% Doctrine

Given that dramatic global warming would--to quote a commenter here a couple of years back--make an atom bomb in Manhattan look like a pin prick, how would the reasoning behind Cheney's "one percent doctrine" lead us to act in response to the available climate data? Given that there's a far greater than 1% chance that human activity is driving climate change, and given how disastrous that change would be, the same reasoning would direct us to do virtually anything in our power to minimize our contribution.

But, of course, their strategy here, where the stakes are so much higher, is just the opposite of their strategy with regard to terrorism. Despite the conclusions of the NAS, the administration continues to temporize, minimize, and rationalize. We might call this the "99% doctrine"--until it's 99% certain that our actions are helping to drive global warming, we'll do nothing.

Neither the 1% doctrine nor the 99% doctrine makes a damn bit of sense of course. The proper thing to do in each case is to do an expected gain calculation. The greater the potential loss, of course, the less evidence is required to make it rational to take action to prevent that outcome. Since the potential loss in the case of global warming is very much greater than the potential loss in the case of (even nuclear) terrorism, it should require even less evidence to make it rational to take steps to curb global warming.

But the Bush administration has shown itself to be blissfully unconstrained by the onerous dictates of logic. They pick and choose the evidence on the basis of which conclusions they prefer. They wanted to invade Iraq, so they exaggerated the evidence for the WMD hypothesis and ignored arguments against it, basically lightening the burden of proof until it was almost certain to be met. They don't want to accept the global warming hypothesis and its consequences, so they've tried to make the burden of proof in that case so heavy that it cannot be born by ordinary scientific evidence.

Setting differential burdens of proof for hypotheses one prefers as opposed to those one does not is a hallmark of irrationality. Sadly, it is also a hallmark of the current administration.


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

IMO (of course), it might not be unfair to say that both the Iraq war and Kyoto fail a reasonable cost/benefit analysis.

Still, even 1% gets one off the hook for being WRONG. (Especially when we drag MORALITY into it.)

On a concilitory note, I'm pretty good with the Montreal Protocol: even though it was by no means certain that CFCs were eating the ozone layer, the cost of eliminating them was manageable.

Just in case.

Me, building nuclear power plants is the best way to reduce auto emissions. With our current energy infrastructure, hydrogen-power is a joke because it creates more pollution to extract the hydrogen than you make up by powering cars with it.

But with nuclear power, the equation starts to make sense, and far more sense than gutting the world's industry so that people can starve breathing fresh clean cool air.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Orlando C. Harn said...

But with nuclear power, the equation starts to make sense, and far more sense than gutting the world's industry so that people can starve breathing fresh clean cool air.

A) Gutting the world's industry is not necessary. Please read the new article in the New York Review of Books by the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

B) Nobody cares about "fresh clear cool air"; smog is not a threat to the planet. Greenhouse gases are.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

A) Please. You're kidding, right?

B) "Cool."

4:25 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Nobody wants to gut industry. People are starving now not because we're not producing enough stuff...not even because we're not producing enough food. It's a distribution problem.

You're right, though--addressing global warming isn't without its costs. But this administration has actually gone backwards re: lots of obvious, direct steps. E.g. gutting CAFE standards and giving tax breaks for SUVs.

There's lots of stuff we can do shy of gutting industry.

As for nuclear, I go back and forth. If we're just going to stick with light water reactors, I don't think it's going to help much. But there are more sensible options. Anybody know what ever happened to CANDUs and HTGRs?

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there are all sorts of good reasons to reduce our dependency on carbon-based energy. But I'm not particularly worried about "catastrophic consequences" of global warming. After all, there's a non-negligible probability that moderate warming will make our lives a bit easier -- like it did during the Roman era and during the Medieval Warm Period.

11:05 AM  
Blogger bodiciah t rentlord III said...

The Medieval Warm Period, the timeframe where the Mayan cities colapsed, the Anasazi disappeared, and the modern Great Plains were covered by sand dunes, right? Of course it does depend on your point of view. Small pox epidemics in the native tribes could have made life a bit easier for many European colonials.

9:00 AM  

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