You are driving, and almost out of gas, but you have two passengers who both need a ride. One fell at a construction site and has a steel bar through her chest. The other needs to quit smoking or she will develop emphysema in thirty years. With your limited resources, is it better to go the emergency room, or the late-night drugstore which sells nicotine patches?
Of course you go to the emergency room. But of course, this is a false choice.
In this spirit, I want to take on the nonsense about climate-change spouted last Friday by a reactionary writer named Bret Stephens, on the political affairs talk show Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher mentioned a study by scientist James Lawrence Powell showing that in almost eleven thousand scientific studies of climate change, only two studies denied it was caused by human activity. Stephens answered Maher’s challenge thus:
STEPHENS: Let’s say we have a trillion dollars to spend on some environmental priority. A few years ago a data statistician named Bjorn Lomborg brought together some of the greatest scientists alive, winners of the Nobel Prize, people who’ve thought a lot about how to remediate poverty around the world. And they [sic] asked them, what are your priorities? For instance, would you like to combat hunger in Africa? Would you like to combat malaria, which is killing millions of people every year? Would you like to eradicate the scourge of HIV? And then, make your priorities because you have limited money, right? And what these scholars and experts concluded is that on that list, what we should be devoting the least amount of resources to is trying to combat climate change with technologies that at the very least are inexpensive [sic] and not mature.
Stephens ended with a smirk of victory, and sad to say, Maher went with contempt as his response (complete transcript below). Of course, Maher is a comic and contempt is funny, unless you’re trying to win people over (ask Al Gore about his contempt, during his debates with George W Bush). If I didn’t know something about the subject, if I weren’t listening closely, I would have scored the exchange a draw, and Stephens’s poisonous spin would have settled into my brain like that slug-thing in Wrath of Khan. Which is AWFUL.
So, for the record, this is what I wish Maher or his other guests would have bothered to say, directly, to Bret Stephens.
– We weren’t talking about poverty, and poverty is not climate-change. You changed the subject. You’re trying to con me.
– Nobel Prize winners who are experts on poverty are economists, not physicists or medical researchers, and certainly not climatologists, a discipline that didn’t exist in Nobel’s era. So you asked the wrong people about the wrong thing.
– You don’t “only” have a trillion dollars to solve global problems – that’s a piddling amount to cure either poverty or climate change, less than one year’s United States Federal individual income tax payments (not counting corporate taxes, state taxes or Social Security).
– The “combat” against climate change is not some massive trillion-dollar sci-fi project to cool the planet – it’s using LESS energy. It’s turning down the thermostat, making more efficient cars, changing lightbulbs, promoting mass transit in cities, increasing solar and wind energy, and generally being aware not being childish. It’s not easy, we are all imperfect, there are costs and trade-offs, and some damage has been done — but we still have to try and trying isn’t so hard.
Here’s another way of saying it: You are driving, and almost out of gas… Oh, yeah. A false choice.
Why waste my blog space challenging Stephens’s nonsense? In the modern world, half-truths and distortions merit a response. That old phrase “I won’t dignify that with a reply” is just out; there are too many liars filling the vacuum of your disdainful silence. If you care, you should call out nonsense, wholly and patiently, to protect yourself and others. (You know that Stephens’s little slug-thing will keep going, right?)
This is why Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman writes so many popular columns defending Democratic (i.e. leftist) policies in plain language. His authority and his detail makes him harder than most to challenge credibly, if one has an open mind, and he sees this, thank goodness. I wish more climate scientists and their fellow travelers would do the same.
Thank you for reading.
PS – for the sake of brevity I didn’t use all of Stephens’s set-piece, which also has other distortions and spin designed to raise our American libertarian hackles. Here’s the whole exchange:
MAHER: Geochemist James Lawrence Powell combed through every peer-reviewed climate article in the last two years and found that [of] 10,855 peer-reviewed climate articles, only two rejected the notion of man-made climate change. Two out of 10,855! Doesn’t that persuade you, the idea of scientific consensus? Don’t you think scientists know more about science than we do?
STEPHENS: What doesn’t persuade me is the idea that scientists know more about public policy than we do, or scientists ought to dictate what public policy is. Just — just a quick example. We have limited resources in this world, right? Let’s say we have a trillion dollars to spend on some environmental priority. A few years ago a data statistician named Bjorn Lomborg brought together some of the greatest scientists alive, winners of the Nobel Prize, people who’ve thought a lot about how to remediate poverty around the world. And they asked them, what are your priorities? For instance, would you like to combat hunger in Africa? Would you like to combat malaria, which is killing millions of people every year? Would you like to eradicate the scourge of HIV? And then, make your priorities because you have limited money, right? And what these scholars and experts concluded is that on that list, what we should be devoting the least amount of resources to is trying to combat climate change with technologies that at the very least are inexpensive [sic] and not mature.
MAHER: OK. Well, I’m not familiar with that study, I’m not familiar with what happened there, but I don’t know, I guess these were different scientists from the 10,500 that I mentioned.
Seriously – scientists dictating public policy? How dare they! I’m sure that when Stephens’s doctor tells him to watch the salt and the pasta carbonara, he shouts, “You’re not the boss of me!” and eats more lard. Asshole.