This bon mot is attributed to Sir Robert Watson-Watt, one of the parallel inventors of radar, and with his patron Sir Henry Tizard the scientific intelligence behind the creation of the RAF’s air defence system that allowed Fighter Command to win the 1940 Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe had equivalent, and better made, radars, but didn’t integrate them properly in their air defence system till around 1942.
It’s hard to overstate the value of Watson-Watt’s approach. By putting devices into production as soon as they worked, and upgrading when something better was developed, he could demonstrate continuous progress to his RAF and Air Ministry backers and keep them on board. Britain started building its chain of radar stations as early as 1937, giving time for development of the new command-and-control system it required.
The lesson applies most obviously to health care reform. The House Democrats can either adopt the second-best Senate bill en bloc, or commit political suicide. Can you see negotiating improvements with Lieberman and Nelson against the clock of Brown’s induction as a feasible alternative now?
It’s also true of climate change. On health care, only loss of nerve can stop the enactment. The Massachusetts election is a far worse blow to the world’s climate. It will prevent US action on cap-and-trade until the Senate Democrats summon up the courage to kill the filibuster and tell the Republicans to get out of the f*ing way of the popular will. (Yes, they should stop being so polite as well. Gentility is for gallant losers, Tim Henmans not Andy Murrays.) Obama and the Democrats in Congress have every reason now to go for a strong bill, force the Republicans to actually filibuster it, and campaign in November against their nihilism.
So I have no sympathy with the perfectionist rearguard action against cap-and-trade and for a carbon tax. Take my co-blogger Michael O’Hare:
The right cap is at the level where marginal cost of further reduction equals marginal benefit thereof, so we have to know where these lines cross and keep updating them (and adjusting the cap) as things change.
But that’s precisely the one number we do have! It’s the 2°C maximum acceptable increase in global mean temperature, agreed at Copenhagen. This corresponds to about 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. The estimate surely needs more work, but it’s a question of scientific fact not policy. So the cumulative carbon cap is 1 trn tons, give or take a few 100 billion, from now to eternity. You can either allocate the lot now or phase in a cap over time gradually by guesswork.
Now this is about as sensible as real policy can get. The 2°C and the 1 trn tonnes are probably both wrong and should, as Mike says. ideally be adjusted over time, though this would be very difficult and probably won’t happen. But it’s absurd to reject the one little political beachhead we have – the consensus to limit global warming to 2°C, from which we can work out the caps – because the cap number is iffy, and an ideal carbon tax could pose less cognitive demands on the Guardians. You go with what you have, using the imperfect approach that has the widest backing. BTW, I still think the Guardians are a possibility, made more likely by Sen. Centerfold.
In the immortal words of Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt (jr) on Utah Beach on D-Day, when the first wave of the of the US 4th Infantry Division had come ashore safely but a mile adrift of the right place according to the plan:
We’ll start the war from here.