Oh, on the subject of sea-level rise by mattsteinglass
June 30, 2009, 5:07 pm
Filed under: Environment, Netherlands

I’m now posting from my wife’s home country, the Netherlands, where we’ll be for the next 3 weeks or so.

Nice country they’ve got here. Shame if something were to happen to it.


The “Waxman-Markey by itself will do nothing” critique by mattsteinglass
June 30, 2009, 4:55 pm
Filed under: Environment

Andrew Sullivan correctly explains where I am coming from in responding to the reader whose critique is that the specific effects of Waxman-Markey don’t justify its cost. That reader wrote:

By all accounts, the bill’s not nearly radical enough to cause the sorts of changes that would save Venice, or the polar bear, or the snows of Kilimanjaro.  If Waxman-Markey is the end of the story, polar bears are still a goner by the end of the century, and probably much sooner than that.

We’re standing here after 30 years of debate over the effects of man-made global warming and what we ought to do about it. We have finally come to a consensus (most of us, anyway) that something has to be done. (I have to restrain myself, each time, from writing “about a problem that threatens to destroy the Earth as we know it.” But that’s not hyperbole. As Joe Romm summarizes, MIT’s mainstream predictions now put CO2 at 866 ppm by the end of the century, while the Copenhagen meeting of 2000 climate scientists last December put it at 1000 ppm  — more than double the unacceptable 450 ppm level at which scientists envision an ice-free planet. The ultimate trajectory in such scenarios is for sea levels 250 feet higher than today. Of course it would take centuries for enough ice to melt to raise sea levels by 20 feet or more — or maybe not, according to more recent research.)

Anyway, at this point in this miserable, far-too-slow process, we finally have grudging agreement that something has to be done. And Waxman-Markey is the something that we can get done, at current levels of political willingness. So now, mutatis mutandi, the argument being raised is that Waxman-Markey is insufficient to accomplish the things that need to be done. Of course this argument will always be raised against whatever step we try to take first, no matter what it should be.

And here, that Matthew Yglesias post from a while back is right: this really is precisely one of Parfit’s “Mistakes in Moral Mathematics” — namely, the idea that a measure which, by itself, is insufficient to achieve a moral goal unless everyone else takes similar measures is therefore without moral value. In Parfit’s example, it remains moral for each person to individually try to save a group of trapped coal miners, even if the absence of any one of those individuals would make no difference in the end. To say that there is no point trying to rescue the miners because it will have no effect unless everyone else tries, too, is to embrace an obvious moral monstrosity.

We are trying to arrest global warming before it destroys the planet as we know it. The bill we have is nowhere near sufficient to do that, but it is a first step. It is always possible to argue against taking the first step in a task that appears tremendously difficult. Two familiar arguments of this form are “But no one else will join us, they will abandon us,” and “The task is too great, so better to accept reality and make the best of things while we still can.” In Tolkien, these arguments are respectively illustrated by the characters of Wormwood and Denethor.

The latest up-to-date science on global warming by mattsteinglass
June 29, 2009, 1:21 am
Filed under: Environment

This is the summary of a report from a mainstream US Government research body formed by the Department of Energy.

We have examined the principal attempts to simulate the effects of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate. In doing so, we have limited our considerations to the direct climatic effects of steadily rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and have assumed a rate of CO2increase that would lead to a doubling of airborne concentrations by some time in the first half of the twenty-first century. As indicated in Chapter 2 of this report, such a rate is consistent with observations of CO2 increases in the recent past and with projections of its future sources and sinks. …When it is assumed that the CO2 content of the atmosphere is doubled and statistical thermal equilibrium is achieved, the more realistic of the modeling efforts predict a global surface warming of between 2°C and 3.5°C, with greater increases at high latitudes.

So there you go. Sounds about par for the course, right? Seems to fit the predictions you see in other studies, like that MIT study published in May that predicts global warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100, and so on. Probably a middle-of-the-road study from last December or so, eh?

Except in fact the above report dates from 1979. It’s called “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment,” and it’s the report of the Carbon Dioxide Effects Research and Assessment Program, formed by James Schlesinger, who became the first Secretary of Energy after President Carter created the department in 1977. This is well before James Hansen delivered his celebrated warnings to Congress in the mid-1980s.

We’ve known about all this stuff for 30 years now. Everything one might have expected to occur based on the report has, in fact, happened in the subsequent 30 years. The scientific consensus has become overwhelming as the data and models become orders of magnitude more convincing and sophisticated. Yet there are still people wandering around arguing it’s not happening, and it’s taken us 3 decades to even begin to do anything about it. Talk about a procrastination problem.

Right-wing warblogger advocates shooting journalists by mattsteinglass
June 29, 2009, 12:58 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Media, War

Here’s the difference between us: even though the things he writes have led to the deaths of American soldiers and have severely harmed the US’s cause abroad, I would never advocate that the US military kill Ralph Peters.

A paleo-conservative stance on Vietnam by mattsteinglass
June 28, 2009, 1:35 pm
Filed under: Vietnam, War

Daniel Larison is exactly right about the Vietnam War.

What devoted anticommunists could not then and to some extent today still cannot admit is that Vietnam was basically unnecessary and irrelevant to the greater success of the West in the Cold War. They furthermore cannot accept that the millions who died in the war and the millions who perished in its aftermath most likely would not have died had there never been a “crusade” to save South Vietnam. This is a bitter truth, and there are not many people who would want to accept this. Being wrong about this does not change all of the things that Solzhenitsyn got right, but thirty-one years later we might note that we have listened more often than not to people who have said that the West was lacking in willpower, needed to show more “resolve,” had gone horribly awry in withdrawing from Vietnam, and in almost every instance in the last three decades those people have been as wrong as can be.

Iran, China, and the middle of history by mattsteinglass
June 28, 2009, 1:12 pm
Filed under: China, democracy, Iran

Matthew Yglesias had an uncharacteristically weird post yesterday on the #iranelections uprising as part of the old “end of history” thesis:

The geographical scope in which Shi’a Islamism and velayat-e faqih could possibly become the dominant form of government is obviously pretty limited because there aren’t that many Shia Muslims in the world. But despite that limit the Islamic Revolution represented the only real example I think you could come up with of a true ideological alternative to liberal democracy in the world. And part of what we’ve seen over the past several weeks is the collapse of that alternative.

I don’t understand where China is supposed to sit in this narrative. Clearly, the Chinese model of a dominant ruling party which essentially professionalizes the business of government and hands it over to a self-selecting and to some extent meritocratic elite, while dramatically restricting the ability of the populace to participate in politics and limiting freedom of expression and assembly in order to ensure stability, is an “alternative” to the liberal democratic model. And it is, so far, a quite successful alternative.

What Yglesias might be saying is that the Chinese model is not an “ideological alternative” because the actual structure of the regime is not determined by a clearly articulated ideology. The supposed ideology the regime embraces, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist stuff, is (on this view) not actually believed by anyone, while the real rationale that structures the political system is only explicitly stated in analyses by foreign observers, not by the regime itself. But I think this view, if it is the view Yglesias takes, is wrong. The philosophy that undergirds the structure of the Chinese regime is part of a millennia-old Confucian tradition in much the same way that liberal democracy partakes of the millennia-old Greek tradition. This philosophy has absorbed Marxism in much the mushy and indeterminate way that Buddhism was folded into a Confucian tradition, after temporarily becoming the official state ideology in the Tang dynasty.

The Chinese philosophy of governance is hard to understand and encapsulate for Westerners in large measure because the Confucian tradition of writing and argument is quite dissimilar from the Western tradition, and doesn’t involve as much rigid logical elaboration, so we often can’t figure out what they’re saying. But the underlying precepts are quite consistent and come up over and over when one gets into political arguments. One might argue that because it’s so deeply embedded in Chinese or East Asian culture, this model of governance is not exportable (beyond East Asia, anyway) and thus doesn’t represent an “ideological alternative”. But I think this isn’t quite true, either. There are elements of the Chinese approach to governance that can be embraced by many countries. I’ve heard Ethiopians say that their government seems to be trying to reshape its structure into a Chinese-style single-party mandarinate, under the influence of Chinese success. And, of course, liberal democracy is deeply imbricated in a Western European cultural inheritance and has for this reason been very difficult for many non-European countries to embrace.

In fact, the Iranian political model might be described as a variant of the Chinese one, with the mullahs and the Guardian Council as the moral/ideological “parallel structure”, instead of the Communist Party. (Remember that the Iranian revolution was a late-70s anti-colonialist revolution with plenty of Marxist participation.) The weakness of the Iranian system is probably that because of its fundamentalist religious character, it is proving less adaptable to consumerist capitalism, feminism, and other forms of social change than the Communist Chinese system. Then again, the Iranian problem might simply be that Iran suffers from a resource curse, while China doesn’t.

But the main point is that I think the Chinese ideological challenge to liberal democracy is pretty strong. Let’s take an example. Broadly speaking, Western liberal democracy takes the view that individuals are the best judges of their own interests, and that a society that leaves them to pursue those interests will mostly arrive at greater wealth and happiness for everyone. Confucian political systems take the view that individuals, left to themselves, will engage in destructive feuds and be seduced by charlatans into ruinous schemes, and that every society needs a well-educated class of wise men who have a solemn responsibility to protect harmony and the general welfare. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which of these views seems more plausible relevant?

That’s a pretty strong ideological challenge, no?

Voting “no” on Waxman-Markey because it’s too weak by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2009, 7:38 pm
Filed under: Environment

Waxman-Markey passed the House by 7 votes, 219-212. 44 Democrats voted against the bill. Many no doubt did so because they thought the bill did too much to protect the environment. But did any Democrats vote against Waxman-Markey because it doesn’t do enough?

Well, at least one did: Pete DeFazio of Oregon. If you follow the link, you’ll find DeFazio’s extremely cogent argument against cap-and-trade. In particular, he’s strongly opposed to CDM-style carbon “offsets”, where companies get to buy permits to emit carbon from other companies with projects that supposedly reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases. DeFazio thinks it’s liable to massive scamming and that it will eviscerate up to two-thirds of any planned carbon emissions reductions. He likens the trading of emissions credits to the trading of financial derivatives. And he has an alternative plan: cap and don’t trade. Just cap. Plain old cap. It’s the Jim McDermott climate change bill, which DeFazio supports.

I prefer the McDermott regulatory approach because of its certainty.  Under this alternative we will reduce emissions here in the United States of America; we won’t be engaged in buying phony offsets offshore; and we won’t create new exotic financial vehicles like “carbon default swaps” and “carbon tranches.”

It’s an honorable position. Unfortunately it has absolutely no chance of passing. It’s worth noting that Jim McDermott himself voted for Waxman-Markey. But we need people like DeFazio out there, because the next step, if Waxman-Markey passes the Senate, will be to come back next year or the year after, and make it tougher.

Add.: I should say that I don’t agree with DeFazio — I think CDM carbon offsets are a good thing, I don’t agree that scamming is as widespread as claimed, and I think a lot of the problems can be resolved by setting a percentage limit to the amount of carbon reduction that can be derived from offsets. But DeFazio’s opposition is responsible in that he has an alternative proposal and he’s genuinely seeking a better system for carbon emissions reductions. There are a lot of people out there who just use skepticism on the effectiveness of cap-and-trade as an excuse to throw up their hands and do nothing, which is an approach that makes the folks at Acme Coal-Fired Electric Power Plant Inc. very happy.