Archive for the ‘Holdren’ Category

Op-ed by nuclear physicist on climate change: questions for "skeptics"

August 5th, 2008 4 comments

John P. Holdren, an MIT and Stanford-trained nuclear physicist who is professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and director of Harvard’s Woods Hole Research Center, former President and Chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and consultant for the past 35 years at the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [yes, this is an appeal to authority] had a short but interesting op-ed in the August 4 Boston Globe.

I think he’s trying to be sensitive, but Holdren may come off a bit arrogant; he’s certainly insensitive to those who are concerned that government may bungle any climate “solution”.  Given his technical knowledge and experience, I hope readers will understand where he’s coming from and encourage them to read the whole thing – which really isn’t too long.

But since I have you here, allow me to quote liberally:

skeptics about [climate change] tend to move, over time, through three stages. First, they tell you you’re wrong and they can prove it. (In this case, “Climate isn’t changing in unusual ways or, if it is, human activities are not the cause.”)

Then they tell you you’re right but it doesn’t matter. (“OK, it’s changing and humans are playing a role, but it won’t do much harm.”) Finally, they tell you it matters but it’s too late to do anything about it. (“Yes, climate disruption is going to do some real damage, but it’s too late, too difficult, or too costly to avoid that, so we’ll just have to hunker down and suffer.”) …

The few with credentials in climate-change science have nearly all shifted in the past few years from the first category to the second, however, and jumps from the second to the third are becoming more frequent.

Their arguments, such as they are, suffer from two huge deficiencies.

First, they have not come up with any plausible alternative culprit for the disruption of global climate that is being observed, for example, a culprit other than the greenhouse-gas buildups in the atmosphere that have been measured and tied beyond doubt to human activities. (The argument that variations in the sun’s output might be responsible fails a number of elementary scientific tests.)

Second, having not succeeded in finding an alternative, they haven’t even tried to do what would be logically necessary if they had one, which is to explain how it can be that everything modern science tells us about the interactions of greenhouse gases with energy flow in the atmosphere is wrong.

Members of the public who are tempted to be swayed by the denier fringe should ask themselves how it is possible, if human-caused climate change is just a hoax, that:

  • The leaderships of the national academies of sciences of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, and India, among others, are on record saying that global climate change is real, caused mainly by humans, and reason for early, concerted action.
  • This is also the overwhelming majority view among the faculty members of the earth sciences departments at every first-rank university in the world.
  • All three of holders of the one Nobel prize in science that has been awarded for studies of the atmosphere (the 1995 chemistry prize to Paul Crutzen, Sherwood Rowland, and Mario Molina, for figuring out what was happening to stratospheric ozone) are leaders in the climate-change scientific mainstream.  …
  • US polls indicate that most of the amateur skeptics are Republicans. These Republican skeptics should wonder how presidential candidate John McCain could have been taken in. He has castigated the Bush administration for wasting eight years in inaction on climate change, and the policies he says he would implement as president include early and deep cuts in US greenhouse-gas emissions. …

    The extent of unfounded skepticism about the disruption of global climate by human-produced greenhouse gases is not just regrettable, it is dangerous. It has delayed – and continues to delay – the development of the political consensus that will be needed if society is to embrace remedies commensurate with the challenge. The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going. Those who still think this is all a mistake or a hoax need to think again.

    (emphasis added)

    Holdren is focussed on arguments regarding science, and so fails to address questions as to the efficacy of proposed solutions involving government action, which questions are of course important.

    Although Austrian and libertarian observers may have very useful things to add to the policy discussion, it seems fair to say that, except for a few such as Jonathan Adler, Gene Callahan, Edwin Dolan, Sheldon Richman and Bruce Yandle, many have preferred not to discuss policy but to focus either on climate science or on the motives of those self-deluded religious, fascist creeps who think that there may be a problem.

    While concerns about science and motives are perfectly legitimate, let me add a few points that Austrian “skeptics” ought to consider:

    – Austrians tend to view “environmental” problems not as harms to a disembodied “environment”, but as real problems involving conflicts in individual/firm plan formation that arise because of a lack or clear or enforceable property rights in particular resources or large information, transaction or enforcement costs that make contracting difficult

    Are there clear or enforceable property rights with respect to emissions of GHGs, or the atmosphere or climate more generally?

    Is private contracting a practical way for individuals and firms with differing preferences as to climate or GHG emissions to meaningfully express such preferences?

    – What lessons does history teach us about the exploitation of open-access resources that are not protected by accepted rules among the relevant community of users?  If there are problems with such resources, how have such problems been addressed in the past, with what degree of efficacy?