Whatever Works?

Apparently, people who don’t believe in global warming will still conserve energy and promote non-fossil fuels if you give them other (including religious) reasons. My experience in political advocacy over the years tells me that environmentalists will have a mixed reaction to this.

When I was pushing for the first mental health parity law, I worked closely with advocates who did not want the vote of any Congressional Representative unless s/he “admits that mental illness is a disease and not covering it with insurance is discrimination.” They were exasperated with people like me who were satisfied if a member voted for parity because it polled well in their district, or because the insurance companies gave heavily to their primary opponent last cycle, or because they wanted to appease activists in their districts whom they personally considered “crazy”. As long as the Congressional Representative or Senator voted “the right way” I didn’t care why they did so, but I was working alongside dear, respected friends who found such pragmatism morally suspect.

Some environmentalists will be overjoyed at the NY times story on energy conservation without belief in global warming, i.e., at last, a way to reach the unreachable! But another faction will turn up their collective noses and say that energy conservation only “counts if it’s done for the right reasons”, and until they “admit they are wrong and that global warming is real” the Kansas residents profiled in the story are still the enemy.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Whatever Works?”

  1. Point taken. But the preference for "right reasons" (in this case, reality-based ones) isn't irrational. Environmentalist goals adopted because of knowledge of the science and the consequences for ignoring it will probably be (a) more stable over time, and (b) of magnitude appropriate to the situation. Environmentalist goals adopted for other reasons are not particularly likely to have those characteristics.

    Not that environmentalists should turn up their noses at things that concretely help the cause (all conservation "counts"), but conservation in some cases, though good as far as it goes, is not the same thing as having a reliable ally.

  2. The only person even paraphrased in the Times article cited as coming anywhere near the "faction" Mr. Humphreys condemns doesn't come close to stating "counts…" and "admit…" Maybe there are turned-up nose environmentalists out there, but this post is a completely unsupported allegation. Facts, please.

  3. "another faction will turn up their collective noses and say that energy conservation only “counts if it’s done for the right reasons”, and until they “admit they are wrong and that global warming is real” the Kansas residents profiled in the story are still the enemy."

    What a crock. Apoligies are in order; this is BS. Don't we hear enough of this nonsense from Slate & its ilk?

  4. Wetherman and Brian — check out the comments section on the story. There you will see the expected mix of people saying how wonderful the Kansas developments are and other people heaping contempt and insult on the project. If you dig around on other sites as the story circles the web, there will be more of the same

    Some people in politics focus on ends damn the means, some on means damns the ends, some care about both.

    Twas ever thus.

  5. I think for most folks their beliefs on global warming are based on who they think is reliable and choose to listen to. This is true across a wide array of scientific issues – autism and mercury in vaccines, healthfulness of organic foods, urgency of use of fetal stem cells, potential damage from genetic engineering of crops, danger from antibiotic use in food animals. We all look to our priests for guidance, for some of us our priests write for the New York Times, for some, not.

    My own guess is that the US' actions make little difference here anymore, any easily lifted petroleum will be burned, if not by us, by China or Brazil. So you could describe US energy-consumption-limiting actions as essentially propitiating the gods, with no particular likely effect on actual emissions. That said, if we are looking for allies in limiting US petroleum consumption, maybe the Tea Party anti-deficit people could be enlisted to back increased carbon taxes, to lower the deficit.

  6. The reliability factor really is important. Just look at all the republican senators who voted against measures that they themselves had sponsored. But when you look at anecdotes about Hummer owners and people who refuse to recycle because of their party affiliation, even doing something right for the wrong reasons is a step forward.

  7. Okay. I checked out the highlighted comments (Explorer kept crashing when I tried to access the rest); clearly, some people were laughing at/criticizing Kansas (and not w/o reason). But I saw no one saying that energy conservation doesn't count unless it's done for the right reasons.

    No doubt some nut or nuts somewhere in the 180-plus comments said something along those lines. I still say the claim that this reaction will be shared by a non-insignficant faction of environmentalists is a crock. You have heard of nutpicking, right?

  8. The worry that the moderate, pragmatic, complacent, uncommitted center will take control amidst any important conflict, and in a fit of terminal, intellectual incoherence, create a completely dysfunctional Frankenstein monster is hardly idle. If you don't really care, and don't understand the functional connection between the problem and the design of the proposed solution, compromise is likely to be willy nilly at best, and corrupt and destructive at worst.

    Now, it happens that our environmental and energy problem are multifarious, but broadly parallel and reinforcing, so there's plenty of room — vast room, in fact — for different points of view, different starting points for analysis and understanding, to come down to the same policy imperatives. Global warming, peak oil, ocean acidification and dying coral, war in the Mideast, financial imbalances and economic crisis — problems in vastly different domains of human knowledge are all part of a whole, so there is hope for differing perspectives to lead to a unified view.

    But, there's also a very real risk that a global perspective will lose out to particular confusions. It is not uncommon, for example, on the econblogs, to see talk of response to climate change, framed in terms of how little a responsible response to climate change will "cost" in terms of future economic growth. And, that's from the liberals! From people, who "believe in global warming". The concept that we have to respond to global warming and peak oil and ocean ecology collapse and all the rest in ways that preserve some foundation for the economy — that's still foreign to many, even among those, who would seem prepared to understand.

    That doesn't say anything about how to convert the opposition, oriented as many are, to economic "prosperity" based in environmental rape, union busting, war, fraud and kleptocratic politics generally, to acceptance of the need to muddle through without significant risk of civilizational collapse.

    I read through some of the comments, and saw a fair amount of complaint about the "smug liberals" and the like. It does occur to me that it might not be the liberals, who need to get over themselves.

  9. Dave Schutz – Very astute comment. I wonder how many readers of Daily Kos (or this blog, for that matter) are anti-GM or worried about cellphone radiation or prefer to buy organic produce. None of these positions are particularly informed by scientific evidence. They're the views handed down by the priests. But they're our priests, so at most we chuckle indulgently at those foibles, while getting pissed off at the morons in the middle of the country. (This line of thought doesn't stop me from getting pissed off at the morons in the middle of the country. Their priests aren't my priests…)

  10. Dave, Foster

    There may be some overlap of community between, on the one hand, those who want to protect the environment and are worried about anthropogenic climate change, and on the other those people, all too many of them being on the left, who believe in all sorts of woo-woo nonsense (anti-vaxxers, cell phone radiation paranoids, crystal healing, whatever). But there's no such overlap between the scientists and regulators pounding the drum about global warming and the miscellany of cranks, enthusiasts, and fringe figures promoting the causes you attempt to conflate with them. Nor does the Times treat the latter seriously (organic produce, which you mention, is a separate issue – there's no evidence it's better for the person eating it, but it may be better for sustainable agriculture). Indeed, the media sources that treat as fact whatever is convenient to their ideological worldview tend to be the hard line ideological outlets – and the only mass-circulation hardline ideological outlets even pretending to be anything other than an opinion vendor in this country are Fox "News" and the rest of the Murdoch empire.

  11. Hi retr327

    I think you have misread my post as an invidious comparison. I had only a few things to say about those who care about reasons more than results (1) That I have worked closely with them on causes I care about (2) That they are my dear and respected friends and (3) That they are skeptical of my pragmatism (A critique of me that I reported without comment or any attempt at refutation, I was just describing how they feel as they would).

    I recognize that much of blogospheric writing (way too much IMHO) takes the form of "There are two sides, my side and the evil side so let me tell you how evil they are…" but I just about never think that way or write that way — It is worthwhile I believe to note political complexities within coalitions and throw them out to smart people like RBC readers for dialogue and debate. That was my sole purpose, and that's why I didn't say anything negative about either political "type".

  12. Keith:

    Fair enough, and I appreciate your response, which was certainly more civil than my initial reaction. I guess something about the way you put it hit a nerve.

    I had noticed the same NYT article this morning, and simply wondered why more wasn't being done to "scale up" the approach taken in Kansas. As far as I'm concerned, if you can convince people to reduce their carbon impact by saving energy (and money), more power (so to speak) to you. Though Chris makes the case for "the right reasons" rather well.

  13. The whole debate over ends and means must ultimately boil down to how much means people will accept to get so much means and vice versa. Morality, philosophy, religion, science are a bitch, no? Still I believe the motto of this site: essentially that we have the right to our opinions but not to our facts; should drive our thinking and also our rhetoric. Which, when it comes to global warming — or if we seek a better phrase “climate change'' — we must try to shape our arguments to the historical, factual record, rather than the speculative (however scientifically rigorous and retoricaly unconvincing) estimates, speculations.

    Why the fuck don't those concerned about climate change simply appeal to the historical record — Viking settlements in Greenland, the fact that icy Greenland is called Greenland, the poetry of Shakspeare, the character of Greasy Joan, who doth keel the pot, the freezing time in England. The historical record of recent time PROVES that the climate can change — fuck,… all those Turner paintings with their gorgeous sunsets were the result of Indonesian volcanoes.

    My point?

    Any sane person, any student of recent history knows that climate can change and does change, and can change rapidly. those concerned about our future (those who talk about global warming) often fail to realize that the world has global warmed lots of times in its history just has it has global froze a lot of times too

    Of course we shouldn't as the human race facilitate unnatual, untimely, wrong or (as the phlosophers might say.. WRONG) warming.

    At the same time, we must be a little more intelligent about climate. Sure we change the climate. But also climate change happens all the fucking time. Why else do we call icebound Greenland GREEN-land. It was green once. Cattle grazed the lochs . Wheat was grown on Islandic farms.

    All we need to do is force a carbon tax, stop letting public resources become private, as fish are robbed from the oceans to feed us. etc.

    Goood night,

    Jeb

  14. I buy eggs and poultry from a uber-Christian home schooling family of farmers up the road. While I have never discussed Darwin's theory of natural selection with them, I am fairly sure, from reading their freely shared views on Jesus and home schooling and what God wants from us and stuff, that these folks are not Darwinists. Nonetheless, they do not feed their birds a shit-ton of antibiotics, or really any for that matter, because they understand (again, from their web site) that they would be contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistant pathogens that will one day imperil us all. So I happily pay these good people $6/doz for eggs and $5/lb for poultry because a. the food tastes good, b.I like the way they farm, c. whether or not they "believe" in global warming, they are contributing very little to it and d. whether or not they "believe" in evolution by natural selection, they are doing their part to prevent the natural selection of antibiotic resistant pathogens in the food supply.

    Today when I was reading John Cole and Doug J's excellent ripping of Sully on how "people on the left" need to internalize, or some such shit, that some rich people work hard for their money. And yet Sully goes on to launch a rather pragmatic and, dare I say, liberal, defense of progressive taxation. Years ago, Bobo wrote an article about gay marriage that boiled down to "Liberals like gay marriage for the wrong reasons. I like gay marriage for the conservative, and therefore correct reason."

    Belief scolds, go away. I will take my drug-free/cage-free eggs, my environmental conservation, my progressive taxation and gay marriage any way they come.

  15. "Why the fuck don’t those concerned about climate change simply appeal to the historical record — Viking settlements in Greenland, the fact that icy Greenland is called Greenland, the poetry of Shakspeare, the character of Greasy Joan, who doth keel the pot, the freezing time in England. The historical record of recent time PROVES that the climate can change — fuck,… all those Turner paintings with their gorgeous sunsets were the result of Indonesian volcanoes."

    Because admitting climate can change unrelated to human activities weakens the case that any current changes are due to human activities. And because admitting that it was warmer in the past, and humanity thrived, weakens the case for doing anything about warming even if it IS human induced.

  16. Didn't say there were, I was relating why warmers don't talk about it a lot. You can except something is true, and think it best to be quite about it for rhetorical reasons. Even think it's best to make it obscure; An awful lot of work was put into trying to make people forget about the medieval warm period, for instance, by people who could hardly have thought it didn't exist.

  17. An awful lot of work was put into trying to make people forget about the medieval warm period, for instance, by people who could hardly have thought it didn’t exist.

    One tires of practically every single argument arising from a false premise amongst the usual denialist suspects.

    Tiresome false premises aside, today is different than the past. It is not the same.

    One cannot set policy or argue in civil society by comparing today to the past.

    Mankind has increased the fraction of CO2 in the atmosphere by ~34%. This is the most basic physics. Mankind has deforested – reducing carbon sinks – and planted fields – changing albedo. Mankind is nitrifying ecosystems across the planet. Altering the P cycle too. Depositing Hg. Increasing high-altitude cloud cover. Altering the hydrological cycles across the globe. Overfishing. Simplifying ecosystems. Fragmenting habitats.

    It is very simple. Very simple indeed. Not hard to grasp. Man is altering many of the the global biogeochemical cycles. To deny this is the height of ignorance or folly. To claim it is not a problem is the height of ignorance or folly. To pretend to argue for policies that are business as usual is the height of ignorance or folly.

    Not hard to grasp at all. Fortunately, the majority of people on this planet agree. Unfortunately, the opposition to simplicity is very, very, very well funded and motivated.

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