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Thu, 30 Apr 2009

An Inconvenient Debate

Do certain kinds of topics bring so much additional baggage to the table that it makes it difficult to discuss them rationally? And, if so, is there anything that can be done about that?

Without thinking about it very hard, I'm sure that you could come up with any number of topics that would fall very neatly into this rubric: abortion, gun control, economic policy, and political philosophy all come readily to mind. The arguments made for or against, on this side or that, favoring one position over another are no doubt familiar to nearly everyone. In nearly all cases, you don't even have to know very much about the nature of the arguments to know that the subjects themselves are quite controversial. Often referred to as "hot button" issues, subjects like these inevitably arrive bringing a retinue of emotional and ideological hangers-on with them, so much so that it becomes difficult to separate the rational wheat from the emotional chaff. Too often the discussions degenerate into any number of thinly disguised ad hominem critiques of the other side. Attempts at invoking moral points ("It is wrong to be in favor of X") inevitably wind up being perceived as personal criticism ("You are a bad person because you are in favor of X").

The problem, of course, is that in many cases, it is exactly these kinds of questions that are often must urgently in need of debate and discussion. In a democracy like ours, the "marketplace of ideas" resembles less of an orderly forum and more of a collective shouting match. The consequences for society as a whole are quite predictable: political and policy paralysis, subject to minor swings back and forth depending on what person or party happens to be in power at the moment: President George H.W. Bush imposes restraints on U.S. funding for groups that provide access to abortion; upon assuming office, President Clinton reverses the policy; President George W. Bush wins the election and these policies are reinstated; now President Obama comes into office, and lo and behold, the restrictions are tossed out again. All this ping-ponging is damning evidence that there is really no consensus in this particular area of policy at all.

Which wouldn't be such a bad thing in and of itself, except that sometimes we as a nation or society have a real need to achieve consensus in one of these hot-button areas, and where policy paralysis is not an option. One such subject area is global warming.

Now it's not my intention here to go into the minutiae of the arguments about global warming: Is it real? What should we do about it, if anything? Can we afford to do something? Can we afford not to? (It will probably be obvious after not too long which side of the thermometer I'm on anyway.) But what I'd like to explore are some of the things that come uninvited to the table when global warming is being discussed, and how they manage to obscure and sidetrack the debate.

Global warming is a big, nebulous thing. It involves something not readily perceptible by the average person (small changes in temperature) which changes slowly over a very long period of time (decades to centuries). Potentially negative consequences (for example, rising sea levels or shrinking ice caps) also tend to play out in distant places that don't have much direct impact on average folks. Finally, many of the proposed mitigations for global warming tend to be expensive to carry out. These are the first and probably most important factors that lead to less-than-perfectly-rational discourse about global warming.

The problem with problems that are hard to perceive and happen on long time scales is that people are closely wedded to their senses, and thus global warming simply doesn't register on most people's sensory radar. The truism, "out of sight, out of mind" clearly describes what happens to most people under these circumstances. The first kind of emotional response then becomes, I don't see any sign of the problems you're talking about. Certainly there's no sign of any kind of imminent catastrophe. So why worry about it?

Why indeed? It's clearly easier to understand a resident of Abilene, Kansas being concerned about a tornado bearing down on her home than for that same person to get worked up about shrinkage of the Greenland icecap. For those of us in the First World, life is generally pretty good, especially when compared to the majority people in the Second or Third World. We enjoy a First World lifestyle which is being paid for by a pretty serious level of consumption of all kinds, not the least of which involves a high level of per-capita energy consumption. What's wrong with all that?

Several things, actually. A First World lifestyle being powered by a similar level of consumption is almost certainly unsustainable in the long term -- if not for us in particular, then for the planet as a whole, as more and more Second and Third World countries aspire to a lifestyle more like ours. Do we think it would be acceptable to try to deny the average citizen of China or India their ever-growing aspirations for those things we tend to take for granted: a house, a car, a television, a steady job that pays decently, affordable food, access to health care when needed? Of course not. But the problem is that a country like China has more than four times as many people as the United States, and if all of them had a First World lifestyle, the drain on the world's resources would be incredible.

The "why worry?" response is due to our tendency to focus on the immediate and obvious and to discount potential problems which won't occur soon. It's similar to a person with a tidy sum of money in the bank, which makes them feel that they must be okay -- when they aren't considering the fact that each month their net cash flow is negative by, say, $250 per month, and that their $10,000 nest egg will be exhausted in roughly forty months.

Another kind of emotional response to a problem like global warming focuses on the potentially large costs of trying to solve the problem. Yes, global warming is a problem. But we have to balance the cost of fixing the problem against the economy as a whole.

Economists and psychologists have long noted that, as mentioned previously, that people have a strong tendency to overvalue a dollar in hand today and undervalue a larger sum that might have to be laid out tomorrow. Because global warming has long-term consequences, it doesn't often seem worthwhile to spend good money today on preventing bigger problems in the future. This line of response assumes that spending money now on remediation now is incurring a net expense, and that doing little or nothing saves money.

This is simply another kind of short-term versus long-term thinking, and one that proceeds from false assumptions about what the true costs of remediation are. If we restate the problem in personal terms that everyone can relate to more easily, very few people would argue that it's cheaper to exercise and visit the doctor regularly in order to stay well than to accept the much greater future costs of coping with the medical consequences of an untreated illness. Doing nothing about a potentially serious problem almost always carries with it a hidden cost of that avoidance: miners could discharge acids and toxic metals into nearby streams without any economic consequences to themselves; a chemical company could simply dig a pit and dump its waste into it far more cheaply than attempting to treat its effluent; a coal-fired power plant could simply send sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulates up the smokestack and into the air. But the consequences of this behavior, while financially advantageous in the short run, are far more costly to deal with in the long run. And even if a company manages to evade direct financial responsibility for its actions, the costs are eventually passed along to the taxpaying population at large, usually at the state or federal level. The billions of dollars spent on Superfund sites is just one glaring example of such hidden costs. There is no reason to believe that deferring spending to ameliorate global warming will result in any kind of net savings in the end.

No science is perfect, and the climate science related to global worming is no exception. This fact gives another kind of emotional ammunition to those who would do nothing: The environmentalists have been wrong before, so why should we believe they're not going to be wrong again about this? It's easy to discount what someone is telling you if you believe that they are basically not reliable. We naturally tend to trust those we consider trustworthy, and place less confidence in a person who has led us down a false road at some point in the past. Things like climate modeling, which involve large numbers of assumptions, heavy use of projective mathematics, and conclusions based on percentages, statistics, and likelihoods are more difficult for the average person to follow and thus to feel confident in, which is why this kind of argument has such emotional resonance. So it is also with the costs associated with averting the more dire consequences of global warming. These are not small, and so people naturally worry about spending on something which might not even happen at all. The environmental types have predicted doom and gloom before, and they were wrong about it. Couldn't they be just as wrong again?

In order to understand and recognize the emotional content of this line of argument, let us instead reframe it in terms which are more concrete and easier to understand. Every community of any non-trivial size "decides" that for the greater good of the community as a whole, the local government should provide the training, equipment, and resources necessary to have ready teams of firefighters who are capable of extinguishing blazes quickly to try to prevent a small house fire from consuming the entire dwelling, or worse, spreading to adjoining property and causing even more widespread damage. The fire department acts as a kind of public insurance, whose costs are shared by all.

Now it is inevitable that from time to time, the owner of a house will be able to put out a small kitchen fire on their own before the fire department arrives. Even though the professionals were not needed, we don't then turn around and encourage people to not call the fire department for small fires. In this case, being "not needed" is simply a fortunate kind of false alarm. As long as the number of these kinds of false alarms is not excessive, their existence is accepted as part of the overall cost of avoiding the destruction of the entire house for those times when the homeowner doesn't have a fire extinguisher close at hand.

The incorrect predictions of science should be viewed like the "not needed" kind of false alarm. Yes, the money and time spent by the fire department going out on such a call are money and time which could clearly have been better spent on other things or in other ways. But those costs are really just a kind of insurance premium, paid to avoid large, expensive conflagrations. So too if science occasionally turns up with an incorrect prediction about a potential problem in the future -- as long as the number of false alarms is low, that should be considered okay. (On the other hand, too many or too frequent false alarms would indicate something fundamentally wrong with the basic science; few or none would make one wonder whether anything really useful is being predicted at all. Think of the forecast by George Carlin's "Hippy Dippy Weatherman": "Tonight will be dark, followed by scattered light towards dawn. There will be increasing brightness during the day, with gradual darkness again towards evening.")

Another kind of emotional blinkering that often enters into the debate over global warming was alluded to earlier. It involves nothing more than the flat-out failure to perceive that the problem even exists. Again, while science rarely deals in absolutes, and well intentioned people (including scientists) can disagree about things like the level of future change (will the average temperature go up by one degree centigrade? Three? Five?), the overwhelming consensus is that the phenomenon of global warming is real, and that human activities are contributing to a good part of it. So why do some people insist otherwise? I think a large part of the problem is that it's difficult to recognize slowly moving changes taking place over a long period of time, if the overall trend is buried in a large number of short-term fluctuations, especially if the short term changes are small. Saying that the world's average temperature will be five degrees warmer in fifty years doesn't mean that over the next half-century, each year will be a tenth of a degree warmer than the previous one. No, this year may be a degree warmer than last year, but next year could be two degrees colder than this year, the next 2.5 degrees warmer than that, the next half a degree colder than that, and so on.

One striking example of this kind of not perceiving I've heard called landscape amnesia. Over timescales comparable to a human lifetime, it's hard for people living in a place every day to realize that cumulatively, large changes have taken place over that time. It was only after having been away for a number of years from the town where I grew up and then visiting it again was I struck by the disappearance of the wooded areas and farms I remembered from my youth, and their replacement by housing subdivisions and shopping centers. But when I asked my parents, who had lived there all that time, about what had changed in the town, their answer was essentially, "not much". Day to day familiarity with the scene dulled the mental impression these gradual but inexorable changes made in their minds, whereas to me, being away for nearly a decade made them jump out at me in a startling and slightly frightening way. Another good example of this phenomenon can can be seen when one compares photographs of alpine glaciers from 50 or 100 years back with their appearance today: with few exceptions, glaciers are much smaller and have retreated much farther into their mountain redoubts than the same glaciers viewed a century ago.

Finally, the last kind of emotional blindsiding one often sees in discussions about global warming is simply a failure to act. The powers that be may get over the various forms of psychological denial involved and come to understand that the problem does really exist -- yet nothing is done about it, no behavior changes, the status quo carries on as it always has. This phenomenon is not as rare as one would think: the civilization on Easter Island, for example, carefully and methodically cut down one tree after another on the island, until, quite suddenly, one day the last tree was gone and the island could no longer support its human inhabitants, the society there collapsed, and Easter Island became essentially uninhabited for centuries. People look at the great stone moai statues staring out at the Pacific and wonder, "How could a society capable of producing monuments like this not have realized what they were doing to themselves?"

This kind of large scale inertia often results from clashes of interest regarding some kind of resource, be it air, water, or even palm trees. Groups both large and small often have difficulty balancing their "rational" interest in the larger good with another equally "rational" behavior -- selfishness (a behavior that clearly manifests itself in contexts far outside environmental issues, as evidenced by the plight these days of banks caused by over-exuberant mortgage lending).

That the specific problems presented by global warming too often result in no real changes in behavior is an example of a larger phenomenon often called "the tragedy of the commons": a communal resource is overused and abused, to the detriment of all. If everyone abuses the resource, all will suffer; yet, in the absence of effective regulation, each person using the resource reasons, "Although I know it's in everyone's interest to limit my own consumption, if I were do so so, then I know that someone else will go ahead and consume the portion I don't take. So I might as well go ahead and take as much as I can." Logically, the problem is analogous to the prisoner's dilemma, where each participant must decide whether to cooperate with the other prisoners (helping the group overall) or to implicate the others in exchange for a much lighter sentence for himself. In terms of global warming, it often seems perfectly rational for an industrial plant, or a car owner, or an entire nation to simply allow greenhouse gasses to go into the atmosphere unconstrained: there's no point in the United States trying to do much about the problem, since even if we impose curbs on ourselves, all those pesky Third World economies will just go ahead and pump out greenhouse gasses anyway, so why incur the costs and inconvenience of following the Kyoto Accords or similar measures?

Selfishness is one of the most basic of human instincts, so trying to devise ways of overcoming it are not at all easy. One possible way is to overrule individual action by outside intervention (usually by the government). This kind of top-down imposition is not always practical; in addition, it is often quite costly. But in situations where the political situation allows for it, outside intervention can be very effective. Another possible solution would be to somehow privatize the resource in question, giving its "owner" an economic incentive to preserve it. Unfortunately, the atmosphere doesn't lend itself to private subdividing and ready ownership -- the wind blows where it will, and no one can stop it.

No, the only practical way to overcome selfishness and greed concerning the problems of global warming is by carrying out one of those lessons everyone was supposed to have learned in kindergarten: cooperate and play nicely with each other. In this case, everyone potentially affected by global warming (which is pretty much all of us) have to agree as individuals, states, and nations, to collectively regulate ourselves and our behavior. If we have any kind of reasonable expectation of continuing to share a habitable environment into the future for our children and grandchildren, and if we can muster the self-discipline and political will, we can do no less.

Because if we fail, our children and grandchildren will share the fate of the Easter Islanders, except that there will be no place to where they can flee. Will the skyscrapers of New York and Shanghai be our moai?

Posted Apr 30, 2009 at 04:47 UTC, 3189 words,  [/richPermalink