Friday, December 14, 2012

The Problem Of Global Warming

Socialist Action (SA) has just published the second installment of documents from its August convention, entitled How Can We Combat Global Warming? (For comments on the first installment, see here.)

There is one paragraph in the document that is unambiguously false.

Science gives us not only dire warnings but hopeful options of clean, renewable, safe, and largely free energy sources—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro, etc.—that can replace our dependence on fossil fuels. Combined with sensible conservation, and reduction in wasteful consumption promoted by capitalist marketing, restructuring our economies around these alternative fuels can give us a shot at stopping climate change short of irreversible disaster.

The untrue part are the proposed options--there is no conceivable means by which solar or wind will ever supply more than a tiny fraction of the world’s energy. Despite massive government subsidies in the US, and even more so in Germany and Spain, these technologies simply do not work outside of niche markets. And they never will work--the energy storage problem is profoundly intractable. 

SA’s thesis is that we are prevented from using cheap, clean, renewable energy because of the profit earned by the big oil companies, who will now do anything to protect their undeserved rents. But this cannot be true, as there is no cheap, clean, renewable alternative. The maligned oil companies are actually providing us with the cheapest and cleanest possible energy. That energy may or may not be cheap or clean enough--perhaps fossil fuels really are a problem that we need to deal with. But it is not helpful to paint it all as some kind of global conspiracy to dirty the planet in pursuit of private profit. That is just not the case. Oil companies earn money because they provide consumers with the energy they need at a price (both monetary and environmental) they can afford.

So the socialist solution is simply to abolish the evil oil companies, and replace them with renewable energy and free unicorns. This is a dream world. Sadly, the dream is not restricted to Trotskyist grouplets, but has corroded the environmentalist movement generally. I have faculty colleagues who are just as enamored of the conspiracy theory as SA. Abolishing the oil companies would not only lead to a dirtier world (think Haiti), but also to the mass impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people.

Given a choice between socialism and oil companies, I’ll take Exxon/Mobil any day.

Let me say a few words about why some skepticism about the global warming thesis is in order. A comparison with evolution is instructive.

Evolution, famously, makes no predictions. No evolutionist will ever say something like “I have a computer model that shows that within 200 years humans will have evolved horns on top of their heads. Within 95% confidence limits, those horns will be between 1 cm and 5 cm long.” Any so-called “scientist” who offered such a prediction would be laughed out of town.

Evolution can’t even predict the past. There are no computer models that show how we inevitably evolved from apes, or how apes evolved from monkeys. The processes involved are said to be “random,” but that just means that the chain of cause and effect is so complicated that we can’t follow it. It gets approximated as a random distribution.

Evolution does say is that some things are impossible. Human beings, for example, will not, within the next 100 years, turn into angels. Thus the Marxist view of human nature--that we can radically change it simply by altering the economy--is just wrong. Human nature might change, but if so that will happen over many generations, and probably for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the economy.

So now come the climatologists with complex computer models that purport to predict the climate over the next 100 years. These models are heavily parameterized and very complicated. A sufficiently complicated model can be tweaked to provide any prediction you want. In technical language, they are unstable with respect to the parameter space--a small change in parameters can result in a large change in the outcome. Computer models of complex systems have no predictive value whatsoever.

This doesn’t mean models are useless. They offer considerable explanatory value--that is, one can identify the important factors in a particular circumstance. As such, they can suggest experiments or provide understanding. But they are not valid for predicting either the future or the past.

Case in point are models predicting the stock market. They work--until they don’t work anymore, and then they fail catastrophically. Ask the principals of Long Term Capital Management for how that works.

Unlike evolution, which one can establish via multiple arguments, none of which depend on computer models, proof of global warming depends on predictions coming true. That the computer models mimic the past is self-evident--the models are fit to the past. And with enough parameters one can mimic anything, even the past. But it is highly doubtful that the models correctly predict the future. Thus the climatologists’ assertion that the globe will heat up by 20C in 50 years is dubious. If it does happen it will likely be coincidence, not because the predictors were so smart.

Global warming remains a reasonable hypothesis. That human activity is now of sufficient scale to alter the climate is a sensible idea. Some people speculate about our evolutionary future. Others, like Richard Muller, speculate about our future climate. But both of these are at best educated guesses. We won’t know what the temperature change will be over the next 50 years until 2062.

The financial world talks about “black swans,” i.e., a conjunction of circumstances that lead to the cataclysmic collapse of markets around the world. The events of 2007 are called a black swan. Black swans are always a threat, but they’re unlikely. Most people go through life expecting they won’t happen.

Our climate may encounter a black swan. It may be that the world really does heat up, and the consequences are all bad, and society can’t cope, and we’ll all die a miserable death. This is the scenario painted by the most ardent climatologists and Trotskyists. For them, the black swan is not only possible, but probable. I call this the inevitable black swan theory.

But even if global warming is true, the black swan is not inevitable. It isn’t even probable. It is unlikely that everything will all go wrong at the same time. There is plenty of time to deal with global warming--a phenomenon that will likely be modest, partly (or mostly) beneficial, and tractable. People in the future will both know much more about the problem than we do, and will have many more tools at their disposal to deal with it.

The best course of action for dealing with global warming today is to do absolutely nothing at all.

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