You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste. - Rahm Emanuel, 2009
1. Diagnosis - Never underestimate the power of negative rhetoric, which politicians use to grab our attention and solicit our support. Take a look at what they say in debates and rallies, the messages in their fund-raising appeals, and the policy ideas they offer (e.g., XYZ is a huge problem and here’s what must be done to solve it).
Sometimes the declaration of a crisis is justified, in that XYZ is a real problem and the proposed solution makes sense. All too often, however, the problems cited are exaggerated and/or the proposed solutions would do more harm than good. The Power of Bad, Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, 2019.
By continually fomenting fears, the prophets of doom have profoundly distorted the public’s view of the present and the future. By hyping small or nonexistent threats to induce panicky responses, they create far more problems than they solve.
This is an age-old situation, but it’s being accentuated by blazing-fast electronic communications and a 24/7 news cycle. Also, present circumstances tend to be compared to a romanticized notion of how things used to be – not the reality. Ibid.
Humanity was constantly menaced by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, Famine, War, Pestilence. Half of the children died before the age of five. A minor injury or infection could be fatal. A crop failure could mean mass starvation.” Virtually everyone was poor. The only ways to acquire wealth were to seize it from others or force them to work for you. *** Technological progress was slow and sporadic, subject to the whims of rulers who quashed inventions and heresies that threatened the status quo.
The Industrial Revolution has brought tremendous progress, not just in Europe and the US but in countries around the globe. Life today is typically far safer and more comfortable than it was a mere two centuries ago, yet new anxieties keep being stoked by advocates seeking recognition or power. Ibid.
•Our security and prosperity give us more time to worry, more things to fear – and more fearmongers to exploit those feelings.
•[The doomsayers have] grown into an industry of journalists, politicians, and ever-widening array of “experts” in academia, think tanks, corporations, and non-profit groups. *** Catastrophe cannot be avoided without the experts’ guidance.
Anxiety about immigration – terrorism – nuclear war – population growth – exhaustion of energy resources – global warming - genetically modified foods – opioid addiction (never mind alleviation of pain) - vaping (never mind anti-smoking benefits) – etc. The solution: mindless application of the “precautionary principle.” Thus, “no technology should be introduced unless it can first be proven to be safe,” or, as one wag put it, “never do anything for the first time.” Ibid.
Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren wrote in their 1977 ecology textbook that the government had the right to limit family size as a means of averting mass starvation. The feared global famine never came, so the duo “pushed back the date. In the 1980s they warned that famine caused by climate change could kill a billion people worldwide by 2020, and Holdren kept insisting this remained a possibility when asked about it during his 2009 confirmation hearing to be the White House science adviser.”
If the precautionary principle is overdone it will undercut economic and technological progress that could make life better for almost everyone – to the benefit of people occupying strategic niches in our society. See, e.g., The Rise and Decline of Nations, Mancur Olson, 1982.
[S]pecial interest groups (privileged classes, producer cartels, labor unions, etc.) rig prices and/or output so as to advance their own interests, typically with the approval or support of the government. This leads to misallocation of resources and lower economic output than would otherwise be realized, but people in the favored class or group will still be better off. *** In a society dominated by special interests, less effort is devoted to boosting economic output and more to dividing the economic pie (aka “rent seeking”). Any society has special interests, of course, but the specifics vary widely – helping to account for (a) changes in economic performance over time, and (b) the widely differing performance of different societies.
While tending to be optimistic about their personal prospects, people have grown increasingly receptive to claims of collective threats, e.g., terrorism, nuclear war, or global warming. The power of bad, op. cit.
There seems to be an inverse scare law: the more remote the danger, the more apocalyptic the warnings. Our security and prosperity give us more time to worry, more things to fear – and more fearmongers to exploit those feelings.
Is there any antidote for the power of negativity, other than personal experience (which shows things don’t invariably turn out badly) and self-awareness (recognition that our emotional reactions to bad news may trigger ill-advised conclusions/actions)? One possible answer, the authors suggest, is that Americans should take the warnings of the so-called “experts” who are peddling crisis scenarios with a proverbial grain of salt. Ibid.
Most Americans remain moderate in their political views, and public-opinion surveys show that their views haven’t changed much in recent decades. The big change – a marked polarization of opinion – has occurred not among the citizenry but among what social scientists call the political class, which encompasses most of the crisis industry – the legislators, political activists, campaign contributors, journalists, lobbyists and scholars who battle over public policy. They’re the ones segregating themselves at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
2. Application – Having followed the manmade global warming theory (MMGWT) for years, SAFE has pronounced opinions about it – so let’s consider claims about a “climate crisis” as a test case versus one of the other crisis scenarios that are making the rounds. The policy lines have been sharply drawn, the science and economics are in dispute, and supporters of the theory often invoke the precautionary principle. We question whether the MMGWT is valid and are convinced that no need for an immediate, spare no expense replacement of the nation’s energy infrastructure has been established. But let’s hold the policy conclusions for now and focus on whether Americans who aren’t deeply invested in this theory, one way or the other, can reach a sensible consensus about the actions that should be taken (or not taken).
Experience suggests several obstacles, which might prove difficult to overcome. Here they are:
#COMPLEXITY – Ultimately, the validity or errors of the MMGWT will not be determined by responses to emotional pitches about saving the world for “our children” or the like – but rather by scientific research and evaluation. The Earth’s climate system is vast and complex, and scientists have a lot to learn about it. Definitive conclusions may not be reached for decades.
While it’s possible for non-scientists to monitor the scientific debate, at least in a general way, this takes more effort than most people may be inclined to exert. See, e.g., DC field trip: returning to rational energy policies, 12/12/16; and Climate Conference, John Greer, SAFE newsletter, Fall 2019.
How much easier to fall back on arguments that there is (1) an overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of man-made global warming (now relabeled as “Climate Change” or “Climate Crisis”), (2) no time to waste if we wish to avert a global catastrophe, and (3) no downside, since even if the theory did turn out to be wrong, the huge expenditures required to replace fossil fuel energy with “renewable” energy (generally understood as wind and solar power) could be recovered through the resultant creation of “green jobs.”
#POLITICS – The overwhelming scientific consensus claims, etc. aren’t necessarily true, but they have been reinforced by the teaching in public schools and colleges, mainstream media coverage, and the communications of special interests that expect to benefit in one way or another from government support for renewable energy.
Avowed global warming skeptics tend to be viewed as “out of touch,” and many people consider it gauche to express their reservations openly. Witness the campaign to establish global warming as the top issue in the 2020 presidential election – with essentially all of the Democratic candidates going along with the idea. Marketing the climate crisis, 9/16/19 (note reader comments at end).
#DEBATE – To tackle knotty policy issues (in this case what to do about global warming), Baumeister & Tierney suggest the appointment of “red-and-blue-ribbon panels” (or commissions) to study them. But instead of stacking the commissions “with the usual experts from the crisis industry,” create competing teams – an approach that has been successfully used for a variety of purposes in the public and private sectors, e.g., to plot military strategy. The Power of Bad, op cit.
A group called the blue team analyzes the problem and develops a solution, which is then critiqued by a red team that’s looking for flaws. A panel of referees moderates the back-and-forth debate and eventually produces a well-scrutinized proposal for dealing with the crisis – assuming that by then anyone still cares about the problem.
This approach seems intuitively appealing. To the extent that scientific experts who support the MMGWT perceive themselves to have already won the debate, however, they may not be amenable to risk losing ground by participating in such an exercise. It’s far easier to say the time for talking is over and decline the invitation.
In addition to shying away from events that involve interaction with their intellectual opponents, MMGWT supporters don’t spend much time explaining their scientific thinking to the general public. Thus, when Michael Mann of Penn State was interviewed on stage at a recent University of Delaware event, he spent most of his time complaining about the supposed misconduct of the other side versus explaining his own theories and findings. Climate alarmists stick to talking points, 11/14/19.
. . . Mann complained that many sources are trying to “confuse the public” with deceptive, non-stop (bot-generated?) rhetoric. True climate scientists are aiming at a moving target in trying to get their message accepted in the public square. To cope effectively, they are following different rules than they did in the 1990s by carefully screening interview requests, etc.
As Mann sees it, “big oil” companies like Exxon Mobil are misleadingly striving to create doubts about the manmade global warming theory (MMGWT). He likens their role to the erstwhile role of “big tobacco,” which for years attempted to deny or minimize the harmful effects of smoking on human health.
As for the duly elected head of this nation, President Trump is like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. Thus, he is a practitioner of the dark arts – manipulates language to obscure the facts – and follows a “deny and delay” strategy.
#DIFFERENT TACK – A recent column advocated that global warming supporters talk less and listen more, as a way to jump start a more productive dialog. How to have a talk about climate change, Karin Kirk (geologist who writes for Yale Climate Connections), News Journal, 1/28/20.
Seven suggestions: Abandon the talking points – listen (listening is an underused skill) and then ask questions and follow-ups – recognize places of agreement – seek out broad perspectives – focus on immediate, common benefits – learn as much as you can – accept problems to solve them.
Who could argue with these ideas, which if nothing else might serve to enhance civility in this area. It’s hard to escape the impression, however, that the real thrust is tactical, e.g., listen in order to refute. Consider this excerpt:
LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN - If someone incorrectly claims that volcanos pump out more CO2 than humans do, you don’t need to get mad. Instead, leverage the misconception as an opening to talk about how the scale of human pollution overwhelms the pace of natural processes.
Although there is an enormous amount of carbon in the mantle of the Earth, our understanding is that the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere by volcanos is comparatively minor vs. human-caused emissions. How much CO2 does a single volcano emit? Ethan Siegel, forbes.com, 6/6/17.
But it’s debatable whether “the scale of human pollution overwhelms the pace of natural processes” as most of the CO2 added to the atmosphere every year comes from natural sources. How do human CO2 emissions compare to natural CO2 emissions, skeptical science.com, accessed 2/1/20.
In any case, we’ve never seriously questioned whether the burning of fossil fuels has contributed to the steady growth of atmospheric CO2 since the start of the Industrial Revolution – nor denied that CO2 and other greenhouse gases have an overall warming effect (the question is how much).
For a serious debate about global warming and what if anything needs to be done about it, however, there are a number of other questions that we would like to see addressed:
•It’s known that global temperatures have fluctuated considerably in past epochs, driven by natural factors versus human activities? What is the evidence that the warming effect of a growing level of atmospheric CO2 (currently some .0415%) will necessarily overwhelm the effects of such natural factors, e.g., fluctuations in solar activity, and become the prime driver of global climate?
•What is the source of projected global temperatures? If the answer is climate models, how accurate have these models proven in recent years?
•Considering positive factors such as fewer freezing deaths and increased plant yields as well as negative factors, will the likely global temperature increases have a positive or negative impact?
•If fossil fuel use ultimately needs to be phased out, what is the most economic technology(ies) to replace it? Please consider nuclear energy as well as wind and solar power, and don’t forget that both wind and solar are intermittent so they can’t reliably drive the electric grid and must be backed up by storage systems or other power sources.
•What do you think about claims that wind and solar power have overwhelming environmental drawbacks that make them unacceptable for large scale use? Testimony before US Senate Energy Committee: Sources and uses of minerals for a clean energy economy, Mark P. Mills, manhattaninstitutute.org, 9/16/19.
Set aside for now whether such a huge jump in the share of wind and solar is desirable or even feasible. The fact is, a more vigorous pursuit of clean energy by the U.S., especially in concert with other nations, would lead to an unprecedented expansion in global mining and chemical processing, and collaterally a radical increase in the quantities and sources of import dependencies and geopolitical risks for the United States -- and it would produce astonishing quantities of waste. And this says nothing about the demonstrably destructive economic impacts.
•What would be the relative costs (before subsidies) for fossil fuel power, wind, solar, and nuclear power? And who would pay the cost of the necessary subsidies?
•Re the creation of “green jobs,” would there be equal or greater employment losses for the fossil fuel industry and for the manufacturing sector (due to higher energy prices, which would result in higher US manufacturing costs)?
•Why were developing countries like China and India, which emit considerably more CO2 than the US, given a pass in reducing their emissions before the 2030s under the Paris Climate Agreement?
We believe that these and other questions about “renewable energy” require serious consideration. In the meantime, it’s time to “hit the brakes” on transforming our energy infrastructure - at enormous expense and without adequate consideration of the alternatives - based on simplistic claims about a crisis that at worst wouldn’t hit for several decades.