Were Environmentalists Really "hoisted by their own petard?"

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I saw the title of Dana Milbank's new column, "Global warming's snowball fight", and assumed it would be a typical, pseudo-"objective" corporate media hack job about how "one side" claims snowstorms in February disprove climate change, while the "other side" argues that's ridiculous. In general, that's one of my major problems with the media, how everything has to have two "sides," even if one "side" (e.g., the thousands of climate scientists who have studied this phenomenon) has 99.99999999% of the evidence supporting it and the other side (global warming deniers) has 0.000000001% (or less). Instead, Milbank has written a reasonable article that actually makes an important point. After categorically asserting that global warming is a fact ("claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution"), Milcbank writes:
Still, there's some rough justice in the conservatives' cheap shots. In Washington's blizzards, the greens were hoisted by their own petard.

For years, climate-change activists have argued by anecdote to make their case. Gore, in his famous slide shows, ties human-caused global warming to increasing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought and the spread of mosquitoes, pine beetles and disease. It's not that Gore is wrong about these things. The problem is that his storm stories have conditioned people to expect an endless worldwide heat wave, when in fact the changes so far are subtle.

Other environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish; they've blamed global warming for shrinking sheep in Scotland, more shark and cougar attacks, genetic changes in squirrels, an increase in kidney stones and even the crash of Air France Flight 447. When climate activists make the dubious claim, as a Canadian environmental group did, that global warming is to blame for the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, then they invite similarly specious conclusions about Washington's snow -- such as the Virginia GOP ad urging people to call two Democratic congressmen "and tell them how much global warming you get this weekend."

Argument-by-anecdote isn't working...
Kinda harsh, but given that I see and hear what Milbank's describing all the time, I can't really disagree with what him. The fact is, Milbank's correct that when it comes to science, argument-by-anecdote is simply not the way things work (although making John Edwards/evolution analogies is fun, as would arguing that Mitch McConnell and James Inhofe disprove evolution). The point is, the way science works is not through anecdote at all, but through a rigorous process known as the scientific method: "gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning...scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses." Note that the word "anecdote" properly isn't included in the definition of "scientific method." Because, again, anecdotes have no place in science, and no serious scientists - or the politicians who agree with them - should be using them.

More broadly, from what I've seen, people on my "side" who look at the overwhelming scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change and support taking strong action to slash greenhouse gas emissions have been losing the messaging war in recent years. In addition to Milbank's point about being "hoisted on the petard" of anecdote, I'd argue that environmentalists have made several other major mistakes:

1. Pretending that there's an easy solution that will cause 30 billion tons of CO2 emissions every year to disappear. To the contrary, this is going to be a monumental effort, transforming the world's entire energy economy, with enormous benefits to be gained by humanity if it undertakes the effort. But one thing it won't be is small, that's for damn sure. So sorry, but changing the lightbulbs in your house - while a good idea, no doubt - isn't going to solve this problem, not even close. Nor is switching our vehicles from oil as a fuel to coal and natural gas (used to generate electricity for "plug-in" vehicles). Instead, we're going to need a massive effort over the next few decades, one that fundamentally alters the connection between economic output and carbon-based-energy inputs. Right now, we're barely taking baby steps along that path.

2. Starry-eyed techno-optimism isn't the right messaging either, because it's also (almost certainly) false. Thus, we have a wondrous vision of a future in which coal is magically "clean," in which cars are powered by hydrogen (no mention that to actually get the hydrogen, it takes huge amounts of...wait for it....ENERGY!), in which we corn and sugarcane (and, yes, chicken waste!) power our civilization, etc., etc. This is all silliness; in fact, the transition to a low-carbon future is mostly going to be a non-glamorous, mundane, multi-year effort that involves enormous investments, government policy decisions (e.g., see what China is doing on high-speed rail), societal buy-in, and lots of hard work. Again, right now, we're barely taking baby steps along that path.

3. Finally, the argument that somehow we can accomplish all this without internalizing the "externalities" - pollution, national security costs, etc. - in the price of carbon-based energy is utterly laughable. Anyone who understands economics in the least bit knows that if you want to reduce the demand (and increase the supply) of something, you need to increase the price of that something. If you take pricing off the table, you're left with not much, except for starry-eyed techno-optimism and "change your lightbulb" nibbling at the edges of the problem (Tom Friedman explains all this very well in Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America"). Unfortunately, "nibbling at the edges of the problem" is not going to be anywhere close to sufficient in this case, and to claim otherwise is self defeating and disingenuous.

The bottom line is this: we have a strong enough case on the merits of this case (science, economics, national security, etc.) without resorting to anecdotes, wild-eyed techno-optimism, and Pollyana-ism. Unless, that is, we like being "hoisted on our own petards." No thanks.