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.


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Australia is having the same debate, and is at much the same point — serious measures will easily pass one house but may die in the other. To support Parfit’s point, the shape and intensity of the Australian debate is strikingly similar to the American one. Australian contributions to global warming are so small that it’s easy for opponents to ridicule them as infinitesimal, yet a serious cap-and-trade scheme has clear majority support. There’s a broad understanding that we are all of us, large and tiny, exactly equally obliged to do what we can.

Perhaps it’s time for educated Americans to thank NPR for all those tedious pledge drives, each teaching Parfit’s moral calculus.

Comment by Jarrett

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