Debunking George Will, Part 238

This is our first guest post by Tom Hilde, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, specializing in ethics and political philosophy, international environmental policy and institutions, and sustainable development. Hilde co-edited “The Agrarian Roots of Pragmatism” (with Paul B. Thompson) and recently edited “On Torture.” His volume on philosophical pragmatism and globalism will appear in 2010, followed by a book on complexity, adaptation, and sustainability.  He dismantles yet another anti-scientific piece by George Will.  For a related CP piece, see “Krauthammer, Part 2: The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science.”

Opinion columnist George Will starts off his latest rant against climate change mitigation with this lede:

With 20,000 delegates, advocates and journalists jetting to Copenhagen for planet Earth’s last chance, the carbon footprint of the global warming summit will be the only impressive consequence of the climate-change meeting. Its organizers had hoped that it would produce binding caps on emissions, global taxation to redistribute trillions of dollars, and micromanagement of everyone’s choices.

Impressive. One tries one’s damnedest to orchestrate as many ideological Pavlovian bells as possible into a Washington Post op-ed lede, but this one may be studied by climate disinformers for years to come.

One of the basic claims from the anti-mitigation/adaptation forces says that anthropogenic climate change is a myth propagated by scientists and shady global government types, and the UNFCCC itself, or those who seek “…global taxation to redistribute trillions of dollars, and micromanagement of everyone’s choices.”

In this formulation, the latter — the coming global micromanagers — apparently want to govern the world through “global taxation” and the creation of what would have to be a sophisticated system for controlling “everyone’s choices.” This would be stunningly impressive in itself. Such a system would involve a vast team of tax accountants and collectors, in addition to micro-managers. A global intelligence and police force would be necessary to monitor and enforce the global taxation and micromanagement process. Any citizen who discovered this conspiracy would be shouted down as a harebrained kook with a tenuous grip on reality. If this has happened to you already, then you just might have stumbled upon the expanding cabal!

The climate scientists, as the claim goes, seek more funding for their sole enrichment. These devious researchers, from Antarctica to Sub-Saharan Africa, have therefore crafted an elaborate hoax in the never-ending quest for funding. Some good friends of mine are apparently not who they seem to be. Alas, external funding to faculty and research centers doesn’t work this way. Most grant funding will go into research, infrastructure, modest travel budgets, maybe a couple of grad students, and university overhead. A grant can fund salaries, but usually only according to the regular pay scale of the university. If one’s faculty salary is, say, $80,000, one cannot apply for a $500,000 annual salary via a grant. It’s usual that one cannot even apply for, say, an $85,000 salary. As it were, most of the funds would be necessary to maintain this inefficiently elaborate climate change hoax, so that climate scientists and grant agencies across the globe could continue to receive funding to perpetuate the hoax. Of course, this would have to be clearly justified and itemized in the grant proposal.

Will claims that the global taxation program intends to “redistribute trillions of dollars….” That flexibility mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol known as the Clean Development Mechanism and what will certainly be a significant part of any coming global agreement involves financial and technological transfer from developed nations to the least developed and most vulnerable countries. The CDM allows countries with emissions reductions commitments under the Protocol to implement reductions in other countries where doing so may be much cheaper than at home and truly add to emissions reductions. Annex B countries thereby earn carbon credits (or certified emissions reductions) since emitted GHGs enter a global atmosphere for which the overall goal is emissions reductions in the aggregate. The CDM doesn’t work very well in its intended capacity, but it’s hardly a giveaway of billions or trillions. The Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the chief financial mechanism for several international agreements, not just the UNFCCC alone, has given less than $10 billion in grants and about $30 billion in co-financing since its inception in 1991.

Thus far, the commitment in the climate change regime to helping the vulnerable amounts to a proposed fund of about $10 billion per year from the wealthy developed nations. The sum is paltry. Pres. Obama on Friday announced that the US would pay its fair share of this amount. Let’s be generous and say that this means $5 billion per year from the US alone. For comparison’s sake, the 2008 US federal budget was more than $3 trillion of which $682 billion went to Medicare/Medicaid and $618 billion went to defense (not including another $200 billion earmarked for the wars). Or think of this in terms of the US GNP for 2008: $14.4 trillion. If the US committed to paying the entire $10 billion annual fund, it would be committing .07% of GNP or, alternatively, .33% of the 2008 federal budget. One third of one percent.

Climate adaptation funds from the wealthy nations will increase over time, hopefully, but it would be astonishing if the global total ever rose to the level of US defense funding for a single year. For now, a commitment to a portion of a $10 billion fund is viewed as real progress. Claims of hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars in redistributed wealth may be reality on cable TV, but it’s not close to reality in, well, reality.

Regardless, a serious climate change agreement is not a “redistribution” project. It is a moral responsibility. Financial and technological transfer, currently operating at a miserly level of which the developed world ought to feel deep shame, is one feature of a larger effort. I’m not sure why this bears repeated reminding for some people, but the wealthy developed countries and their citizens have benefited economically from high carbon emissions, while people in poor undeveloped countries have not. Current aggregate emissions are overwhelmingly a result of economic activities of the wealthy countries, while poor countries are responsible for the most minimal of emissions. Vulnerability to the effects of climate change is a function of poverty, so the poor will increasingly suffer the brunt of the impacts of climate change. If vulnerable and thus poor, there exist few if any financial and technological resources to adapt to climate change. So, the poor will suffer by far the most from the effects of climate change while being least responsible for emissions. Those developed countries with the highest emissions are most in a position to help the vulnerable and most responsible for the problem.

We ought not to harm people. We ought to help vulnerable or suffering people in general, particularly those who suffer harms inflicted by our own activities. This normative statement regarding harm is perhaps the most basic and universal of moral claims. George Will and other climate demagogues apparently don’t do morality.

It’s one thing to be skeptical of climate science. Any scientist worth his or her salt understands that skepticism is a critical part of doing good science. It is fundamental to scientific method. This is why scientists do iterative experiments. Critics of any given scientific claim are welcome, as anyone in the world of the sciences well knows because it is essential to what they do. This is why we have such things as universities and academic journals. Given various scientific uncertainties involved in our understanding of climate change and its effects, which is natural in any problem science studies, skeptics/critics play an important role in clarifying the limits of knowledge, directing attention towards weaknesses in scientific data or untenable assumptions, and generally helping to advance a larger understanding of the problem. We have to separate this kind of climate skeptic or critic from the other kind, the George Will or Sen. Inhofe variety.

The Will-Inhofe model begins from ignorance of science in general and proceeds to climate science in particular. It begins from a foundation of ignorance about the epistemology of science; about uncertainty, risk, and probability; about the interpretation and understanding of data; and, moreover, about the nature of international environmental law and institutions. Further, when not a matter of deduction from erroneous assumptions, this model employs bad inductive logic. It’s the kind of logic that leads a person to point at a photo of icicles and say, “look, no global warming!” It’s the kind of logic that leads one to assume that all climate scientists are hoaxers because a few scientists among thousands imprudently but privately expressed non-scientific concerns.

We can agree with Will’s opinion piece on one thing: that experts, whether of the scientific, economic, philosophical or op-ed variety, often possess abundant egos and a penchant for making broad “expert” assertions about matters extending far beyond their actual fields of expertise. Such assertions may often stand on no more learned ground than anyone else’s, like those of the average opinion-page columnist. The University of East Anglia climate experts are perhaps guilty of overly entangling normative commitments with scientific findings in personal emails. But if this is the best Will has got, which if he were fair would apply to himself, he really ought to turn to a different subject.

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3 Responses to Debunking George Will, Part 238

  1. Christophe says:

    The failure of conservatives to embrace the issue of climate change is staggering. History will not be kind to this generation of conservative “thinkers” like George Will. They seem petrified in their ideology, unable to adapt, like the dodo birds (only much meaner). The situation could be different. They could invoke caution in the face of danger and uncertainty, support cap & trade (as a market based solution), embrace new technologies and the future prosperity associated with them, stress the advantages of renewable energy over national security, etc. Instead, they adopt a reactionary stand, subvert any virtuous instinct they may have, spread fear and try to shoot down all initiatives from behind the fences. Lame.

  2. Andy Bauer says:

    I wanna be a conservative. Then I could not care about global warming, and feel like I was doing the right thing. That would be nice.

  3. What a delightfully written guest post. Thanks Tom.