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November 20, 2006

I Have Questions

There are a lot of ideas going around in broad circulation in the US that just don't make much sense to me. I am a reasonable person; I can be convinced by facts and logic. And on these issues, which tend to be (at least putatively) very important to the people at large, I see a lot of heat and no light, a lot of argument (mostly ad hominem at that) and very little evidence and reason. So if anyone wants to help me out, I'd appreciate it.

1. Where is the evidence for global warming? As far as I can tell, the global warming thesis in its most extreme manifestation is as follows:

  1. The Earth's global average temperature is increasing.
  2. This increase is largely or entirely caused by man-made effects, particularly pollution from burning fossil fuels.
  3. The Earth will eventually become warmer than it ever has been, or at least warmer than it ever was while humans were on Earth.
  4. This will cause a variety of catastrophes to life on Earth.
  5. Only immediate and drastic action to lessen or eliminate the man-made effects causing global warming can mitigate or avoid these various catastrophes.

My initial thought was to provisionally grant point 1, because it is clearly based on temperature measurements and thus is fairly indisputable. But is it really? Take a look at NOAA's graph of temperatures since 1880. What is the deal with the plateau between 1945 and 1980, in the period when industrial pollution was at its second highest point, or for that matter the late 1800s, when industrial pollution was at its highest point? Does pollution prevent global warming? Moreover, this data covers less than 150 years, an insignificant amount of time in climate terms. (Imagine measuring your heartbeat for three beats and then making a calculation that, since the interval between the second and third beat is shorter than between the first and second beat, your heartbeat must clearly be slowing dangerously.) Finally, the data from different sources is somewhat ambiguous even within the same time scales and temperature scales.

Assuming good faith in presentation of data, which I suspect we can do with NOAA at least (as opposed to activists on either side of the debate), the reliable evidence for temperature change is over such a short time period that its validity over longer periods is questionable. The first point gets much more questionable looking at reconstructed average temperatures for the last thousand years, and worse still looking at 25000 year data for a localized area.

So if there is so much question about the degree to which we are warming, and how much it fits within normal cycles, how are so many people so sure of their opinions on what is happening, and what must be done about it? If the first, core point of the thesis is in some doubt, what about the rest of it?

2. If we withdraw from Iraq, then what? I constantly hear noise about how we have to withdraw, or how we cannot. I tend to fall very strongly on the "cannot" side, because the lessons of history tell me that it would be a rout, a disaster of possibly unrecoverable proportions. But my opinion is not very relevant to my point: I have not heard anyone who is urging withdrawal candidly admit what that means, and discuss what we should do about that. There was an essay recently, which I don't have a link for, in one of the major papers, that was very candid about the immediate results: that those who supported us in Iraq would be killed or driven into exile, and that we could not then count on any support in the future for any other attempts to intervene in the Middle East. But even that only talked about the immediate results, and shied away from the most important result: to leave Iraq without first destroying the enemy would lead the enemy to attack here, and even sooner in Europe. And then what?

3. Are we prepared to live with a nuclear Iran? Here, again, I see those urging us to do so avoiding any discussion of the consequences of allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Since those consequences are potentially grave, it would take some convincing to get me to believe that letting Iran go nuclear is the best option. But I'm willing to be convinced; it just seems that no one is willing to do the convincing, and instead there is a lot of emotionalism and ad hominem flying, as on both the global warming and Iraq issues, but precious little reasoning or discussion of the real pros and cons of the various options.

4. The ever-increasing power of government, and the true threat of tyranny in the US, is virtually never addressed by anyone except the Libertarians. My life is less free than that of my father, and his was less free than that of his father. In part, this is because of well-intentioned efforts to keep us safe from any possible harm. In part, it is because bureaucracies need ever-increasing spheres of influence to justify ever-increasing budgets, and thus ever-increasing power for the bureaucrats. But this continued invasion of our private lives, under both Republicans (who want to control our morality) and Democrats (who want to control our money) leaves ever-smaller areas for us to live our lives freely. Can we reclaim our freedom, or even halt the loss of our freedoms? What is the stopping point? How do we know when we are there?

Posted by jeff at November 20, 2006 10:20 PM

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On global warming:
1) With a 4.5 billion-year history of climate change -- some of it rather abrupt -- before the arrival of modern humans, I too fail to see how this "global warming' can be entirely man-made.
2) Were the pollution levels of the late 1800's "greater" in quantity, or just in localized severity? Remember, a much larger part of the world is now industrialized, and the population is probably 10 times larger.

On loss of freedom:
This may sound way off topic, but it seems that humans will have to leave the planet to regain true freedom. What worries me there is that a certain mentality wants to make it more difficult for people to leave the planet. Democrat James Oberstar is threatening to smother private space initiatives in a mountain of "safety" regulations.

Posted by: Roderick Reilly at December 1, 2006 3:54 PM

Actually, if you look at the long-term (tens of thousands or more of years) we are in one of the coolest periods since the ice age.

I would have to go back and look up the sources again on pollution quantities and what they measured, exactly. I think it was per capita.

On the loss of freedom, I agree that we have to get off-plant: freedom is only possible on a frontier. The settled areas get too heavily populated and there are heavy incentives against freedom in heavily populated areas. I don't think Oberstar, ass though he is, can do more than put the US behind the curve. US companies and investors will happily go abroad to do this, because the will and the money and the ability are all coming together. Oberstar's proposed regulations can only hurt the nation's ability to participate; they cannot stem the tide.

Posted by: Jeff Medcalf at December 1, 2006 5:28 PM

Agreed on U.S. entrepreneurs moving overseas. If they can get dispensations from Mexico's onerous barriers to entrepreneurship (with bribes?), they could just move right across the border, or even down to the Yucatan to be closer to the Equator. Before that happens, though, Democrats like Bill Richardson and RINO Republicans like Schwarzenegger will raise holy hell at the possibility of business loss.

Posted by: Roderick Reilly at December 5, 2006 5:29 PM