Climate Change Politics Round Two

This article about flood risk in San Diego sketches some plausible future scenarios and presents a vision of how coastal cities are responding to this anticipated threat.   Such adaptation investments make a lot of sense and this is a nice case study. But, take a look at the comments posted at the end of the article.   We are a diverse nation.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

19 thoughts on “Climate Change Politics Round Two”

  1. I really hope this isn’t your first experience with denialist carpet bombing. It’s the rule, not the exception. It seems you believe your personal professional niche is to straddle the camps and speak truth to the ill-informed masses, whatever their inclinations. However, many of us see that right foot planted in the full blown anti-science fever swamps and adjust our assessments of your claims accordingly. So far you’ve been making plenty of sense, that’s great. But the scales aren’t balanced, and the game isn’t being played fair, and I hope you understand that.

  2. I enjoy RBC, thanks for the reliably thoughtful posts, but I am too damn depressed now to look at another sentence. Every last idea, every issue, every word is politicized in the U.S. I (foolishly) looked at the comment thread you mentioned, and the only sane conclusion I can reach is that I must be a masochist to pay any attention to my home country’s politics. These discussions seem futile; what is the point if we can’t even get past the semantics of “theory”? I suppose I am also a coward, because its also a relief to be too far away from home for my absentee ballot to ever make it back in time. I need a drink now, and a conversation in any language other than English.

  3. Interestingly, the comments vacillate between denial, and spiteful *joy* in the possibility that the sea might be rising – “what great fishing opportunities!”. I can’t help but think that the former is the same old hand-waving-as-a-smokescreen-for-true-rightwing-perspective found in the latter. You can’t generally come right out and say you don’t give a shit about the earth or most of its (brown) people, so you come up with one elaborate ideological scheme after another.

    This sort of callous “political incorrectness” is widespread on the right. I can’t help but keep thinking it goes to a more fundamental issue of temperament. It’s an attitude that takes an almost gratuitous pleasure in human frailty. I work with a woman, for instance, who routinely jokes that the poor, emotionally-damaged children she teaches “ought to be rounded up and shot”. Understand, she has a dark sense of humor, and this is gallows humor at its finest. But the attitude comes directly from a larger worldview that is often very conservative (she claims to be a moderate, despite her husband’s devotion to Rush Limbaugh in the car). And the right is filled with just this sort of quasi-humorous social darwinist commentary. Tune in to AM radio for an instant and you’re thrust right into a cauldron of anger, disgust and open hostility towards the “weak”.

    To the extent that conservatives hate liberalism, it seems largely due to liberals’ unending devotion to the plight of the “weak”. *This* is what they cannot stand. Whether it is blacks, women, gays, Muslims, or owls – this “concern” continually expressed absolutely drives them mad. Obviously, the implication is that they, due to a *lack* of expressed empathy, are callous, greedy bastards. Yet maybe they are?

    Of course, there are the polls that find conservatives give at least as much on average to charity as liberals. And as generally very church-going folk, I have no doubt this is true. But one cannot help but notice their general air of righteous individualism: “I got mine, get your own – dammit!” The term “politically correct” itself seems to define a de facto stance of humility and charity in communication that conservatives would simply not abide – at least in all but the most racially offensive situations (a barrier straining at the edges after the Obama presidency).

    This is all very ad hominem, I guess. But it isn’t something I take lightly. I tend to think of myself as generally nauseatingly moderate and wiling to crawl inside the mind of my fellow man. Yet at the end of the day, I keep returning to the question of liberalism and conservatism as fundamentally character and temperament-based (the former largely learned, the latter not). Is my character attack on the right simply a principled reaction – that which I feel in *my* gut? Why is my accusation of “greedy” or “callous” necessarily different than their principled position of “individualism” and “freedom”? Conversely, is their accusation of my being a “bleeding heart” or “tree-hugger” necessarily different than my principled position of empathy or naturalism?

    We can of course from here concoct elaborate ideological and philosophical arguments for our positions, underpinned with facts and evidence, reasoning and logic, yet how much of the cart is being pushed before the horse? How much, in the end, are we all just hand-waving in front of deeply-felt and generally intransigent “emotions” (for lack of a better word).

    And maybe a good deal of the problem is just that – our lack of a vocabulary, our lack of a meaning for words to describe. Neither by neuroscience, nor psychology alone do we have more than a very incomplete picture of what is driving these deep-seated responses to the world. The tantalizing question remains: how much of our feeling is being driven by ideas, and how many of our ideas are being driven by emotion? And what is it that we are really feeling? Anger seems one of the most triumphant emotions in politics, yet does not anger always have a source in another emotion. What are we afraid of? What are we mournful of? What has been offended in us?

    Through understanding the roots of our own feelings, the original causes of why we feel the way we do about an aspect of the external world, hopefully we will come to know better why we hold the beliefs we do. Because what are our beliefs, but the codification of how we have chosen to interpret our response to external events? All of which is nothing less than humankind’s eternal struggle to know itself. And in this we continue forever onwards.

  4. Comment boards of local papers are not the best way to judge popular sentiment, for many reasons. They are controlled spaces. Denialists ululating on comment boards are not representative of reality in toto. They merely represent the loud denialist fringe, actively trying to drown out the cognitive dissonance in their heads. The Six Americas study provides good detail on the percent of hard core denialists in this country. Double digits on a good day.

  5. The variety of human attitudes is rooted in the range of human ambivalence. Denialism is in all of us; some of us just sort out our choice of what to express differently. Admiration is part of the human experience; so is resentment. This ain’t Lake Wobegon; in this democracy, half of the population really is below average, really has been abandoned, and they know it, and it pisses them off.

    The embrace of climate change, for a lot of people, is all about what they take to be reality endorsing some of their favored ideas about how people should live; a lot of denialism is resentment and anger about that, which is explicitly articulated in that comment thread. And, it is not senseless. The New Age, crunchy granola set is off in their own fantasy-land. And, beyond that, after the spectacle of kleptocracy in motion during the financial crisis, I don’t think there’s any good reason to trust our global elites to do the right thing. After the revolution, maybe, we could reconsider . . .

  6. Bruce – as a statistician, I have to ask which definition of average are you using? If the median, then yes, half the people are below average. If the mean, then likely a lot more than half are below average. Especially if we are talking about income or wealth, but pro’lly a lot more measurements as well.

  7. Bruce gets at a fairly well-understood reason why the ululators choose to not believe in basic physics: they don’t like the proposed solutions. It is unsurprising that they are complaining that they feel something is being taken away from them. After all: they are living in a society that thinks everything taken from the biosphere is free, and we separate the population from the biosphere by housing and transporting them in climate-controlled boxes.

    Leadership is needed, but alas our political economy does not produce leaders.

  8. “Comment boards of local papers are not the best way to judge popular sentiment, for many reasons. They are controlled spaces. Denialists ululating on comment boards are not representative of reality in toto. They merely represent the loud denialist fringe, actively trying to drown out the cognitive dissonance in their heads. The Six Americas study provides good detail on the percent of hard core denialists in this country. Double digits on a good day.”

    Why is this relevant? Even if they are only 10% of the US, they happen to be the 10% that control all political power, most of the media, and most of business. Or were you unaware of the conspicuous lack of success of any attempts to deal with this problem over the last 20 years?

  9. “Bruce gets at a fairly well-understood reason why the ululators choose to not believe in basic physics: they don’t like the proposed solutions.”

    It is important to realize that this is not specific to global climate change deniers. For every rightwing gcw denier, there is a leftwing overpopulation denier — and for basically the same reason, they don’t like the proposed solutions, and not just the details of any particular solution, they don’t like the very fact of limits that the problem represents.
    Many people are happy with the idea of wearing hair shirts and riding bicycles — but are very very unhappy with being told that this sort of lifestyle theatrics is not enough to deal with the problem.

  10. It’s important to realize that this isn’t about basic physics. Basic physics doesn’t get you to dangerous increases in temperature. It simply doesn’t. You don’t get projections of dangerous temperature increases until you’re modeling vastly complex systems like cloud formation, which are too complex to model from first principles, (AKA “basic physics”) which is why the models all depend on a number of empirically derived coefficients, and that’s where the controversies begin.

    Over and over, I hear, “deniers” don’t believe in basic physics. It’s simply not true, and, in the case of people saying it who aren’t grossly under informed about climate modeling, I’d even go so far as to characterize it as a lie.

  11. Or were you unaware of the conspicuous lack of success of any attempts to deal with this problem over the last 20 years?

    I don’t attribute lack of action to some premise that asserts deniers get elected to office at a rate that makes them a majority. I attribute the lack of action to our strange campaign finance rules. For example, rules that allow fossil fuel industries to purchase electeds who ensure delay in action. It is not the same thing to say an elected official is in denial simply because they voted the way they were told.

    —————

    @Brett: injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will increase the amount of energy at the earth’s surface. This is basic physic, well over a century old.

    It is more advanced physics to project effects of adding GHGs to the atmosphere.

    But it is not hard to understand (basic) that continued addition of GHGs will continue to increase warming. And surpassing, say, 1.5º C warming will take our climate regime out of anything that mankind has experienced since we went agrarian. That’s pretty basic.

    HTH.

  12. Yes, basic physics says the earth will warm, a little, if you inject CO2 into the atmosphere. All this screaming isn’t about a projected increase of a quarter of a degree, however, and all the work that suggests a frightening degree of warming relies on something more than “basic physics”.

  13. So what exactly is your claim, Brett?
    That the historical experience of the past 100 years is purely random, uncorrelated with the industrial revolution? That climate models have done an OK job in retrodiction is a similar coincidence? That no-one should do anything ever, in the face of the slightest uncertainty?

  14. Yes, basic physics says the earth will warm, a little, if you inject CO2 into the atmosphere. All this screaming isn’t about a projected increase of a quarter of a degree, however,

    One notices knowledge of the basics is not distributed evenly across the population.

  15. Eli:

    “How much,… are we … just hand-waving in front of deeply-felt and … intransigent “emotions”….”

    Somewhere between “mostly” and “totally”. The louder the argument, the closer to “totally”.

    “… a good deal of the problem is just … our lack of a vocabulary …”

    I think you are musing about one of the central problems that nearly drove Wittgenstein over the edge. The sheer futility of so much human “communication” led him into ‘meta’-land. What game are these crazy humans playing at? It has very little to do with the alleged “topics” or “issues” under discussion. More tribal signalling and coordination of status and role assignments than anything to the point.

    We’re almost completely unable to accomplish anything productive in our language games until we segregate ourselves into expert communities with established protocols and acknowledged referees. It took rather a long time for scientific discourse to get itself into this kind of productive channel. And most scientists are happiest staying ‘indoors’ and playing with peers who can match their level of proficiency and enthusiasm for the project. But the real world impinges on science now and then — like ‘what do we DO about AGW?’ — and the chess masters have to come outside and try to have a conversation with the neighborhood bullies (politicians, lobbyists and agit-prop specialists). Not a pretty picture.

    When chess masters tangle with street fighters you get ‘deals’ like an ‘extra engine’ for weapons contractors in Boehner’s congressional district and no funding for Tevatron at Fermilab. I guess the Senate Democrats might kill Boehner’s pork project, but that won’t bring back the US entry in the race to find the Higgs boson.

  16. “Over and over, I hear, “deniers” don’t believe in basic physics. It’s simply not true, and, in the case of people saying it who aren’t grossly under informed about climate modeling, I’d even go so far as to characterize it as a lie.”

    This is quite magnificent bullshit that I will push onto my “Brett Bellmore needs to be reminded of something he said before file”.

    Brett, you have many times claimed you’re an engineer. I call bullshit. I’m an engineer, as is my wife, as a cursory search will reveal. You sir, are an actor. A bad one.

    But so revealing of the denialist camp psychology.

  17. What I am claiming is that:

    1. Predictions of dangerous warming are based on models using multiple empirical coefficients, rather than functioning on the level of first principle physics, and therefore it can not honestly be said that ‘deniers’ are ignorant of “basic physics”, since what they’re denying ISN’T “basic physics”, or even actual physics of any sort, but rather an exercise in curve fitting largely independent of the underlying physics. (Which are, of course, present at some level, but they’re not what’s driving the predictions to scary levels.)

    2. That the validity of said empirical coefficients is rather more up in the air than, say, the laws of thermodynamics, in as much as they are dependent both on not having missed some other explanation for the observed covariance, AND on the accuracy of the measurements which show the covariance, AND the validity of extrapolating empirical coefficients far beyond the range over which they were derived.

    3. That said measurements can not be used uncorrected, but that the degree of the corrections that must necessarily be applied to them is such that the validity of the whole enterprise revolves around those corrections having been done with exquisite accuracy. It is literally true that the corrections drive the output of the models. They’re the whole game.

    4. So, stop freaking saying that anybody who denies global warming, or expresses any doubts, is ignorant of “basic physics”! If you do that, you’re just demonstrating that you’re either not listening, or are dishonest hacks.

    5. That one should always check to see if sinus medication is “non-drowsy” before taking it before going to bed.

    In the meanwhile, let me know if you figure out how to model climate accurately entirely from basic physics, without the need for any empirically derived coefficients which almost completely drive the outcome of the models. I’ll probably still be awake when you do…

  18. What I am claiming is that:

    I don’t call an electrician to prescribe something for my inflamed tendon in my foot. Nor do I call a chemist when there is an oil puddle in the driveway.

    But thanks for the opinion that will not reach scientists or decision-makers. Very interesting opinion, good for a minute or two at the bar, surely. Good job giving your opinion!

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