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The evil of banality


I was going to join the ongoing leftist conspiracy to abridge Bret Stephens’ free speech rights by criticizing his writing, but it turns out Jon Chait already made the point I was planning to make:

But the uncertainty of climate modeling runs in both directions. Climate Shock, a 2015 book by two economists, Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman, argues that the “likely” global-warming scenario gets too much attention. What should really concern policy makers, they suggest, is the chance that scientists are underrating temperature change. The likely outcomes, represented by the thick part of the curve, are extremely dangerous and expensive levels of climate change. But the truly frightening scenarios lie on the right edge of the curve:

Graph from page 53 of Climate Shock.

There is, they reckon, about a 10 percent chance of a temperature increase exceeding 6 degrees Celsius, or 11 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be a civilizational catastrophe, orders of magnitude more dangerous than the likely warming scenarios, and potentially on a scale that could threaten human life. Even if the likely scenarios were completely harmless, the far-right tail alone is horrific enough to justify significant steps. After all, they argue, people do not accept a 10 percent likelihood of a fatal car crash or terrorist attack. Wagner and Weitzman are economists well versed in climate science who bolster their case with a rigorous analysis of both science and probability.

Stephens’s column can be summed up as “NFL scouts were wrong about Tom Brady and Ryan Leaf so what makes scientists so confident about the laws of thermodynamics?” and, equally compelling, “overestimating risk is bad.”

But as I was going to point out until Jon did it first, underestimating risk is bad too! Isn’t that just an amazing insight? Now where’s my $4000 (or whatever) that the Times is paying Stephens per column?

On a far more serious note, I myself find it difficult to imagine any even slightly plausible political solution to the climate change crisis.  Probably the most preposterous thing in Stephens’s column hasn’t gotten much notice: his claim that if scientists and their allies talked differently about climate change, people would be more willing to consider making sacrifices now to avoid worse consequences 25 and 50 and 75 years from now.

Ultimately the problem with doing something/anything substantive about climate change has very little to do with empirical uncertainty (let alone the rhetorical presentation of that uncertainty), and everything to do with the likely fact that the vast majority of people are simply not willing to make significant sacrifices of any kind today to avert down the road disasters, assuming we’re talking about a several-decade time horizon.  Throw in the biggest collective action problem of all time, and nothing is going to change until it’s far too late to do anything about whatever does end up happening.   So we had better pray for a technological miracle or three, or the opening of the Seventh Seal, with the latter being the preferred solution to the problem among what Mencken called the plain folks of the land.

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