Phoning it in

George Will phones it in today with a boiler-plate global warming denying column.

There really isn't anything of interest in the column, though I found myself wondering why it is that the particular argument he recites have any probative relevance to the question of global warming.

The occasion for his cutting and pasting was some remarks by Secretary of Energy Chu on the likely disruption and ultimate disappearance of agriculture in California if global warming continues unchecked.

After blithely ignoring any evidence for Chu's claim, or even (of course) accurately representing them, Will trots out several predictions that proved, it seems, to be false: Global Cooling and Ehrlich's bet about the price of commodities.

Both have not come true, though one wonders whether it is the prediction itself that has failed to come true or the time-frame of the prediction. 

But, even if we assume that both of the underlying claims are false–that the earth was entering a cooling phase in the 1970's and that there will be shortages of non-renewable commodities in the future, what does that tell us about Chu's worries? Neither failure tells us anything about the degree to which we should trust climate science and the consensus around the general theory of anthropogenic climate change. They are essentially irrelevant.(What's the best description of these fallacies? Red Herrings?)

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

Deniers love to claim that every local short term climate change is advanced as "evidence of man-made global warming," despite the frequent denials by climate scientists that the case rests on local short term climate variations. (Yes, the media often represents climate science this way, but that cannot be taken to be an accurate representaiton of climate science). Nevertheless, it provides a nice straw man for Will to defeat. 

An unstated premise of eco-pessimism is that environmental conditions are, or recently were, optimal. The proclaimed faith of eco-pessimists is weirdly optimistic: These optimal conditions must and can be preserved or restored if government will make us minimize our carbon footprints and if government will "remake" the economy. 

Seems to me that this is not an unstated premise, but a pretty explicit claim–that human life has come to thrive within a tiny window of climate variation and that it will not thrive if dramatic change occurs. This is a nice rhetorical move, but seems to be some sort of straw man as well.

Because of today's economy, another law — call it the Law of Clarifying Calamities — is being (redundantly) confirmed. On graphs tracking public opinion, two lines are moving in tandem and inversely: The sharply rising line charts public concern about the economy, the plunging line follows concern about the environment. A recent Pew Research Center poll asked which of 20 issues should be the government's top priorities. Climate change ranked 20th.

This paragraph just beggars even Will's limited rational capacities! The argument seems to be that  a short term calamity make you less concerned about long term calamities. It would seem to be true: if I break my leg, I will worry more about getting this healed, than lowering my cholesterol. But my elevated cholesterol may still be the thing that kills me in the long term. It isn't clear what Will thinks we should conclude from this, but all of the things I can conceive as possibilities, seem remarkably silly. I suppose that this is some sort of ad populum fallacy.

Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones. Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.

The last claim–if it is true–might provide some reason to accept Will's cautioning. Perhaps someone can find this assertion here.

4 thoughts on “Phoning it in”

  1. Per your question about the description of the fallacies involved, I’m going with Red Herring (for the Ehrlich wager) and a kind of Strawman for the “global cooling” tripe/trope. The reason for the straw is that there was never anything even remotely akin to a consensus about such cooling. In fact, as has been repeatedly shown, the claim of global cooling stems almost entirely from a Newsweek (I believe) story that greatly misrepresented the known facts of the time, but which various parties have inflated into a “major scientific claim” of the day. Studies have since shown that even in the ’70’s the overwhelming consensus was that we were heading into a sustained anthropogenic period of warming.
    Joe Romm has a lengthy screed about Will’s latest over at his blog. I’d post the exact link, but my system always chokes on his DIGG tools, so I try not to go there more than once a day.

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