Tag Archives: global warming

Flipping the Script on Fossil Fuels

Middle-class climate deniers may think they’re running with the predators. But they’re really prey.

Last Monday, Paul Krugman’s column “Earth, Wind, and Liars” took an interesting tack in talking about climate change and fossil fuels. Up until recently, a typical anti-fossil-fuels argument has been moral: We should stop burning coal and oil because the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere is wrecking the climate for future generations.

To the extent environmental defenders have made an economic argument, it usually has been based on comparing long-term interests to short-term interests: We should ignore the artificial cheapness of, say, burning coal in power plants, because the future damage done will have long-term costs that the current price doesn’t account for. People who make this argument talk about externalities (real costs of a transaction that get pushed off on someone other than the buyer or seller), and advocate policies like a carbon tax to re-insert those externalized costs back into the market. Again, though, the argument is fundamentally moral: Shoving the costs of your present-day consumption off onto future refugees and hurricane victims is a nasty thing to do.

The pro-fossil-fuels interests, though, are well defended against moral arguments. They’ve done their best to undermine public confidence that we can predict the future at all — science being part of the global socialist conspiracy, after all — so all those suffering people in the future (or in distant countries or in social classes the media ignores) can be dismissed as imaginary. And even if their reality is admitted, today’s conservatism has a bad-boy aesthetic that glories in its own hard-heartedness: We live in a dog-eat-dog world where you’re either the predator or the prey. Bleeding-heart liberals are weak, and would let Those People (foreign, non-white, non-Christian) take advantage of People Like Us.

But Krugman’s column makes a different argument. He’s far from the first one to do so, but his point has not yet broken through to the general public.

Not that long ago, calls for a move to wind and solar power were widely perceived as impractical if not hippie-dippy silly. Some of that contempt lingers; my sense is that many politicians and some businesspeople still think of renewable energy as marginal, still imagine that real men burn stuff and serious people focus on good old-fashioned fossil fuels.

But the truth is nearly the opposite, certainly when it comes to electricity generation. Believers in the primacy of fossil fuels, coal in particular, are now technological dead-enders; they, not foolish leftists, are our modern Luddites. … [T]here is no longer any reason to believe that it would be hard to drastically “decarbonize” the economy. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that doing so would impose any significant economic cost.

… The fossil fuel sector may represent a technological dead end, but it still has a lot of money and power. Lately it has been putting almost all of that money and power behind Republicans. … What the industry got in return for that money wasn’t just a president who talks nonsense about bringing back coal jobs and an administration that rejects the science of climate change. It got an Environmental Protection Agency head who’s trying to suppress evidence on the damage pollution causes, and a secretary of energy who tried, unsuccessfully so far, to force natural gas and renewables to subsidize coal and nuclear plants.

In the long run, these tactics probably won’t stop the transition to renewable energy, and even the villains of this story probably realize that. Their goal is, instead, to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments.

In other words, non-plutocrat Republicans (the vast majority, in other words) are kidding themselves when they imagine they’re running with the predators. They’re the prey. The predators are the coal and oil barons who have bought their party and who fund the propaganda they listen to. The prey will be stuck not just with the damage from hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires (that they can argue might have happened anyway), and not just with diminished prospects for their children and grandchildren (which — with ever increasing difficulty — they can still deny for a few more years), but with higher bills and an antiquated electrical system. That’s going to happen not decades hence, and not just according to some computer model built by those nefarious scientists, but in the fairly near future.

Houston, New Orleans, and the Long Descent

Houston will be rebuilt to withstand challenges of the past, not the future, because that’s what declining civilizations do.

Every few years some event makes me come back  to The Long Descent, John Michael Greer’s book about the end of civilization as we know it. This time, it was Hurricane Harvey and the destruction in Houston.

The Long Descent came out in 2008, and I reviewed it for the Sift in 2010 (long enough ago that I’ll assume you either hadn’t discovered the Sift yet or lack encyclopedic recall of everything that’s been in it since). TLD is both depressing and reassuring: depressing because Greer thinks our civilization is already on the way down, and reassuring because he believes that a civilization-wide decline takes a very long time to play out. (The peak of the Roman Empire was in the 2nd century, but the last Caesar didn’t fall until the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453. As Adam Smith is supposed to have remarked in 1778, when told that Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga marked the ruin of England: “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.“) So Greer doesn’t predict a Mad Max future for our children, just an era of greater difficulty and more constraint, followed by an era of even more difficulty and constraint for their children.

Oversimplifying greatly, Greer sees civilization as a constant struggle between Construction and Destruction. Construction is happening all the time and is fairly gradual, while Destruction tends to concentrate in big disasters. In an ascending civilization, Construction is the long-term winner; every big disaster is just an excuse to rebuild bigger and better, as London (1666) and Chicago (1871) did after their Great Fires.

But during the descent, Destruction has the upper hand: A certain amount of rebuilding happens after each disaster, and sometimes it even briefly looks like things have turned up again, but you never quite get back to the previous peak before the next disaster sends you reeling. A constant shortfall of constructive energy means that maintenance is always getting deferred, which invites the next disaster sooner than it would otherwise show up.

New Orleans, for example, had about 450K people before Katrina. It shrunk by about half immediately afterward, and has “recovered” back to about 390K. Pre-Harvey Houston clocked in at 2.3 million. What does its future hold?

That’s not really a fair comparison, though, because New Orleans was already shrinking before Katrina, while Houston has been growing. Houston is a still full of oil money,  so maybe its recovery will look more like London or Chicago.

However, there’s one way in which New Orleans and Houston are similar: Both were disasters waiting to happen, but it was always easier to live in denial of that fact than to build the infrastructure necessary to mitigate the destruction. New Orleans’ vulnerability was pointed out in 2002 (three years before Katrina) by a five-part series in The Times-Picayune:

It’s only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.

Houston’s precarious situation was described last year by Pro Publica and The Texas Tribune in their “Boomtown, Flood Town” series.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane.

When New Orleans rebuilt, it only kinda-sorta dealt with the risks that Katrina had exposed. In 2015, Scientific American asked: “Is New Orleans Safer Today Than When Katrina Hit Ten Years Ago?

It took state officials, scientists and engineers seven years to finally agree on a master recovery plan, released in 2012, and only then did work begin in earnest. The region had dodged an annual bullet because no big hurricane had returned. But several shortcomings in the plan, being discussed by experts, raise questions about whether the New Orleans area is safer now and whether it will be safer in the future.

The article’s conclusion is that the center of New Orleans is now safe against the mythical “100-year storm” (an insurance standard based on pre-climate-change statistics) as long as the newly rebuilt levees and floodwalls are properly maintained. (In addition to normal deterioration, New Orleans is still sinking, so levees and floodwalls will need to be raised periodically.) But this is exactly the kind of maintenance that doesn’t get done in Greer’s model of declining civilizations. There’s always a budget crisis, a more urgent problem, and various other reasons to defer the work until next year.

Communities outside the city center, where more people live than in New Orleans proper, are as exposed as ever. Various kinds of human activity have destroyed the vegetation in the Mississippi Delta’s marshlands, so nothing slows down a storm surge. There’s a restoration plan, but it is still unfunded. Maybe the resources will come from BP’s settlement for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, maybe the rest of the local oil industry can be convinced or compelled to cough up money, or maybe somebody (local? state? federal?) will be willing to pay higher taxes. But the more likely scenario is that everybody will just cross their fingers and prepare to blame somebody else when the next storm hits.

Houston is bigger and richer than New Orleans, and Texas is bigger and richer than Louisiana, so maybe things will be different this time. But probably not. The Northeast is also richer than Louisiana, and the rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy is not encouraging. Last October, WNYC reported:

At first, Sandy seemed to be the calamity that was finally big enough to rouse the country to the arrival of climate change’s many risks. … But even as the inevitability of rising seas and extreme storms settled in, a chasm opened between the actions necessary and what would actually get done.

… Every 30 years FEMA tries to update flood maps which determine two things: cost of insurance and guidelines for building standards. Property owners get lower premiums if they meet or exceed FEMA’s standards.

What is not commonly understood is FEMA’s limitations. It is not allowed to use predictive science. It is supposed to use the present and past as guidelines, but it has not included Sandy’s impact in drafting the most recent maps that the communities are using to rebuild.

Even if FEMA is required to give obsolete advice to local builders, President Obama had at least managed to include climate change in the federal government’s own building plans. But President Trump just reversed that policy.

A key element of the new executive order rolls back standards set by former President Barack Obama that required the federal government to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure.

His justification:

This overregulated permitting process is a massive self-inflicted wound on our country — it’s disgraceful — denying our people much-needed investments in their community.

In other words: Realistic federal regulations are too onerous; they slow down the building process and make it more expensive. Projects can be built faster and bigger and grander if we let ourselves live in a fantasy world.

Texas, where state government is also dominated by climate-change deniers, is not likely to buck this trend. So when Houston is rebuilt, it will undoubtedly be built to withstand last year’s weather, but not next year’s weather, and certainly not the weather of 2030. For a time, it will look fabulous. And then it won’t.

Rising civilizations respond to challenges with visionary bursts of construction. At the height of the British Empire, for example, London responded to a series of cholera epidemics and the Great Stink of 1858 by building a citywide sewer system that is still in use today.

But declining civilizations are always a step behind. They congratulate themselves for how well their plans would deal with yesterday’s problems, while ignoring the predictable challenges they soon will have to face.

Watching up close the forces Greer describes, I come to realize that decline is as much a psychological condition as an objective situation. A civilization on the cusp of decline may still have enough constructive energy to deal with its real challenges, if it faces them. But if instead it indulges in magical thinking, and builds for a fantasy future in which those challenges simply go away, then it will miss all its opportunities to turn things around. Its wishful thinking about its own greatness will be precisely what keeps it from ever making itself great again.

Three Misunderstood Things 7-24-2017

This week: census, environmental regulations, coal jobs

I. The census

What’s misunderstood about it: How can counting people be a partisan issue?

What more people should know: A lot rides on the census. The Census Bureau knows it gets the answers wrong, but Republicans have a partisan interest in not letting it do better. In 2020, it’s being set up to fail.


When the Founders wrote the Constitution, they knew the country was changing fast. New people were pouring into America — some coming by choice and others by force. If Congress was going to represent these people into the distant future, it would have to change as the country changed. So somebody would have to keep track of how the country was changing. That’s why Article I, Section 2 says:

The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

Congress has implemented that clause by setting up the Census Bureau, which tries to count everyone in America in each year that ends in a zero. You can look at this as a rolling peaceful revolution: Via the census, states like Virginia and Massachusetts have gradually surrendered their founding-era power to new states like California and Texas.

No doubt you learned in grade school that counting is an objective process that produces a correct answer — the same one for everybody who knows how to count. But in practice, when a bunch of people count to 325 million, agreement starts to break down. Now imagine that you’re counting a field full of 325 million cats, most running around and jumping over each other, and a few actively hiding from you. How do you come up with an answer you have faith in?

That’s the Census Bureau’s fundamental problem: Americans won’t stand still long enough to be counted, and some are actively suspicious of anybody from the government who comes around asking questions. Inevitably, then, not everybody gets counted, and some people get counted more than once. This is not a secret; the Census Bureau admits that it gets the wrong answer.

That might not be so bad if the errors were random, but they’re not. Basically, the more stable your life is, the more likely you are to be counted correctly. If, for example, you’re still living in the same house with the same people that a census worker counted ten years ago, they’re going to count you again. But if you’re sleeping on your friend’s couch for a few weeks while you’re waiting for a job to turn up, and thinking about moving back in with Mom if you can’t find one, then you might get missed.

Stability isn’t a randomly distributed quality. The LA Times spells it out:

The last census was considered successful — that is, the 2010 results were considered to be within an acceptable margin of error. But by the Census Bureau’s own estimates, it omitted 2.1% of African Americans, 1.5% of Latinos and nearly 5% of reservation-dwelling American Indians, while non-Latino whites were overcounted by almost 1%. The census missed about 7% of African American and Latino children 4 or younger, a rate twice as high as the overall average for young children.

But that raises an epistemological question: How do you know your count is wrong if you don’t have a correct count to compare it to? And if you have that correct count, why not just use it?

The answer to the first question is statistics. Imagine, for example, that you’re trying to count all the species that live in your back yard. You go out one day and count 50. Then you go out longer with a bigger magnifying glass and find 10 more. Then the next couple of times you don’t find anything new. But then you find two. Are you confident that’s all of them now? What’s your best guess about how many are really out there?

Now extend that to every yard in the neighborhood. Imagine that after each household does its own count, you all converge on one yard for a more intensive search than you’d be willing to do on every yard. That search finds even more new species. Now how many do you think you missed in the other yards?

Statisticians have thought long and hard about questions like that, and have a variety of well-tested ways to estimate the number of things that haven’t been found yet. If you apply those techniques to the census, you get more accurate estimates of the total.

So why not just use those estimates? Two reasons:

  • It sounds bad: Ivory-tower eggheads are using a bunch of mumbo-jumbo Real Americans can’t understand to invent a bunch of blacks and Hispanics that nobody has ever seen.
  • Republicans have a partisan interest in keeping the count the way it is.

The Census determines two very important things: how many representatives (and electoral votes) each state gets, and how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money for programs like Medicaid and highway-building get distributed among the states. The miscount gives more power and money to mostly white (and Republican) states like Wyoming and Kansas, and less to a majority non-white (and Democratic) state like California. Within a state, Republican gerrymandering works by crowding Democratic-leaning urban minorities into a few districts, leaving a bunch of safely Republican rural and suburban districts. That minority-packing is even easier to do if a chunk of those people were never counted to begin with.

The 2020 census is already headed for trouble. The Census Bureau is being underfunded, taking no account of the fact that it has more people to count than last time. Plans to modernize its technology went badly. And it is currently leaderless: The bureau chief resigned at the end of June, and Trump has nominated no one to replace him.

So we’re set up for an even bigger uncount of minorities this year. And that’s got to make Paul Ryan happy.

II. Environmental regulations

What’s misunderstand about it: Many people believe that a clean environment is a costly luxury.

What more people should understand: Externalities. That’s how well-designed environmental regulations can save more money than they cost.


Nobody should come out of Econ 101 without an understanding externalities — real economic costs that the market doesn’t see because they aren’t borne by either the buyer or the seller.

Pollution is the classic example: Suppose I run a paper mill, and I use large quantities of chlorine to make my paper nice and white. At the end of the process I dump the chlorine into my local river, because that’s the cheapest way for me to get rid of it. Because I use such an inexpensive (for me) disposal process, I can keep my prices low. That makes me happy and my customers happy, so the market is happy too. Any of my competitors who doesn’t dump his chlorine in the river is going to be at a disadvantage.

The problems in this process only accrue to people who live downstream, especially fishermen and anybody who wants to swim or eat fish. They suffer real economic losses — losses that are probably much bigger than what I save. But since their loss is invisible to the paper market, nothing will change without the some outside-the-market action — like a government regulation, a court order, or a mob of fishermen coming to burn down my mill.

Now suppose the government tells me I have to stop dumping chlorine. I have to find either some environmentally friendly paper-whitening technique or a way to treat my chlorine-tainted wastewater until it’s safe to put back into the river. Either solution will cost me money, and I will have no trouble calculating exactly how much. So you can bet there will be an article in my local newspaper (which now has to pay more for the newsprint it buys from me) about how many millions of dollars these new regulations cost. The corresponding gains by fishermen, riverfront resort owners whose properties no longer stink, and downstream towns that don’t have to get the chlorine out of their drinking water — that’s all much more diffuse and hard to quantify. So the newspaper won’t have any precise number to weigh my cost against. Chances are its readers will see the issue as money vs. quality of life. They won’t realize that the regulations also make sense in purely economic terms.

That’s an abstract and somewhat dated example, but similar issues — and similar news stories — appear all the time. The costs of new regulations are borne by specific industries who can calculate them exactly, while the benefits — though very real — are more diffuse, and may accrue to people who don’t even realize they’re benefiting. (Companies are very aware of what they’ll have to spend to take carcinogens out of their products, but nobody ever knows about the cancers they don’t get.) But that doesn’t mean that the benefits aren’t bigger than the costs, even in dollar terms.

The best example from my lifetime is getting the lead out of gasoline. If you were alive at the time, you probably remember that the new unleaded gasoline cost a few cents more per gallon. Spread over the whole economy, that amounted to billions and billions. What we got out of that, though, was far more than just the vague satisfaction of breathing cleaner air. Without so much lead in their bloodstreams, our children are smarter, less violent, and less impulsive. The gains — even in purely material terms — have been overwhelmingly positive.

III. Coal jobs.

What’s misunderstood about it: What happened to them? Environmentalists are often blamed for destroying these jobs.

What more people should know: No doubt environmentalists would kill the coal industry if they could. But the real destroyers of coal jobs are automation and competition from other fuels.


Coal miners are the heroes of one of the classic success stories of the 20th century. Mining was originally a job for the desperate and expendable, but miners were among the first American workers to see the benefits of unionization. Year after year, coal mining became safer [1], less debilitating, and better paying, until by the 1960s a miner no longer “owed his soul to the company store“, but could be the breadwinner of a middle-class family, owning a home, driving a nice car or truck, and even sending his children to college. Sons and daughters of miners could become doctors, lawyers, or business executives. Or if they wanted to follow their fathers into the mines, that promised to be a good life too.

However, the total number of coal-mining jobs in the United States peaked in 1923.

Was that because Americans stopped using coal? Not at all. Coal production kept going up for the next 85 years.

The difference was automation. Mines employed three-quarters of a million men in the pick-and-shovel days, but better tools allow 21st-century mines to produce more coal with far fewer workers.

If you take a closer look at that employment graph, you’ll notice a hump in the 1970s, when coal employment staged a brief comeback. That corresponded to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and the increased oil prices of the OPEC era. For decades after that, coal was the cheaper, more reliable energy source. Americans who dreamed of energy independence dreamed of coal. In a 1980 presidential debate, candidate Ronald Reagan said:

This nation has been portrayed for too long a time to the people as being energy-poor, when it is energy-rich. The coal that the President [Carter] mentioned — yes, we have it, and yet 1/8th of our total coal resources is not being utilized at all right now. The mines are closed down. There are 22,000 miners out of work. Most of this is due to regulation.

However, all that changed with the fracking boom. Depending on market fluctuations, natural gas can be the cheaper fuel. Meanwhile, the price-per-watt of renewable energy is falling fast, and is now competitive with coal for some applications. So if a utility started building a new coal-fueled plant now, by the time it came on line a renewable source might be more economical — even without considering possible carbon taxes or environmental regulations.

The dirtiness of coal is a huge externality (see misunderstanding II, above), so regulations disadvantaging it make good economic sense. Looking at the full cost to society, coal is the most expensive fuel we have, and should be phased out as soon as possible.

Statements like that make good fodder for politicians (like Trump or Reagan) who want to scapegoat environmental regulations for killing the coal industry. However, dirty coal is like the obnoxious murder victim in an Agatha Christie novel: Environmentalists are only one of the many who wanted it dead, and other suspects actually killed it.

[1] The number of coal-mining deaths peaked at 3,242 in 1907. In 2016 that number was down to 8. As a comment below notes, though, that doesn’t count deaths from black lung disease, which are on the rise again.

The Paris Agreement is like my church’s pledge drive

How can a non-binding agreement be as important as Trump’s critics say it is? On a much smaller scale, I’ve just been dealing with something very similar.

If you’ve ever read the Paris Agreement on climate change — it’s dull but relatively short as international agreements go, so it’s not that hard — President Trump’s announcement that the United States is withdrawing from it was a bizarre performance. As you can see from David Victor’s annotation of the speech, virtually every line of it was either false, fantastic, or based on an incorrect assumption. (Near the beginning of the speech David Roberts tweeted: “If Trump says something true, I will notify you all.” There proved to be no need.) Parts of it were even internally contradictory, like the line where he called the agreement “non-binding” and “draconian” in the same sentence.

Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.

But though it was wrong in almost every detail, the picture Trump painted was very vivid: The Paris Agreement is an international conspiracy to hoodwink the United States and wreck our economy.

The fact that the Paris deal hamstrings the United States, while empowering some of the world’s top-polluting countries, should dispel any doubt as to the real reason why foreign lobbyists wish to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement: It’s to give their country an economic edge over the United States.

He did not mention President Obama directly, but the implication was clear: Obama agreed to this either because he was a fool or because he was in on the anti-America plot. Unlike his predecessor, Trump is pro-America — he represents “the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” — so he’s calling a halt to this nonsense.

Fact-checkers and other expert critics have been easy to find, but there’s a problem with their account, especially as it relates to low-information voters who are inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt: Not only is the experts’ interpretation of the Paris Agreement much less arresting than Trump’s paranoid fantasy, it doesn’t seem to hang together either. If the agreement doesn’t bind us into some kind of suicide pact, and doesn’t bind other countries either, how can renouncing it have the kind of apocalyptic consequences critics claim? If the nations that signed the agreement are still free to do whatever they want, how does Paris save any polar bears or avert hurricanes or keep the ocean from swallowing Miami?

So if we’re going to help the public resist Trump’s disinformation campaign, what we really need is not more detailed analysis from experts in international law or economics or climatology. We need a simple example from everyday life that helps people understand what the Paris Agreement is and does. In particular, the example needs to demonstrate how a non-binding agreement can be important.

Luckily, I happen to have such an example handy.

The Paris Agreement is a pledge drive. I admit, this model is in my mind for serendipitous reasons: This spring I was on the committee that organized my church’s annual pledge drive. But it turns out to be a pretty accurate parallel.

Every year, our drive works like this: We announce a target, a total amount that members will need to contribute during the next year if the church is going to do all the stuff our member-elected leadership thinks we should do. We send out a brochure explaining what that stuff is, and how the total compares to what we collected the previous year.

Then we ask everybody to send in cards with pledges: “I will contribute X dollars next year.” The pledges are in no sense binding. If you run into financial problems in the course of the year, you can always call the church office and say, “I’m going to have to lower my pledge.” Or you can just not send in the money. It’s not like we can take you to court or turn your pledge card over to the bill collectors.

The Paris Agreement is like that. It announces a goal: The nations participating in the agreement want to keep the overall increase in average global temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution down to 2 degrees centigrade (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Since the main cause of this increase is the rise in greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) in the atmosphere, the agreement asks nations to make a pledge to limit their carbon emissions.

Each country determines the size of its own pledge. The pledge can be changed at any time. And there’s no enforcement mechanism that kicks in if you don’t fulfill your pledge.

Just like at my church.

What good is a nonbinding agreement? If no nation is actually committed to anything in a legally enforceable way, you might well wonder what the point of the agreement is. After all, nothing stops a country from announcing an ambitious goal with a lot of fanfare, and then doing nothing. So if you’re looking for absolute certainty that the world is finally going to take serious action to fight climate change, the Paris Agreement doesn’t provide it.

So what does it do? The point of the agreement, as I see it, is more subtle: Like our pledge drive, it’s a trust-building exercise among its members.

In any collective enterprise with voluntary inputs, there’s always a free-rider problem. If, say, I contribute a lot to the church and the guy sitting next to me on Sunday morning gives practically nothing, we both get to sing the same hymns and hear the same sermon. And since no household contributes more than a percent or two of the whole budget, the direct impact of each individual’s contribution to his or her own church experience is close to zero. (If nobody contributes, we’ll have to fire the minister and turn off the heat, which I would notice. But if everybody else contributes an appropriate amount and I don’t, probably not much changes.)

Climate change is like that, especially for countries smaller than China or the United States. Denmark, for example, is a world leader in wind power. In 2015 it generated 40% of its electricity from wind, and plans to be over 50% by 2020. But it’s such a small country that, considered in isolation, its achievement makes practically no difference to the global climate. Even the U.S. isn’t big enough to turn things around by itself, which is sometimes used as an excuse for doing nothing. As Marco Rubio put it during a Republican presidential debate: “America is not a planet.

But the nations of the Paris Agreement — everybody except Nicaragua, Syria, and now us — are really close to being a planet. If they can work together, the gains will be meaningful. Building the trust that allows them to work towards a common goal is where the pledge-drive idea comes in.

The point of a pledge drive is to make sure that if you volunteer to make some sacrifices, you can know that you won’t be alone. Before I send in a single dollar towards next year’s church budget, I get to know what all the pledges total up to. (We missed our goal this year, but we’re close enough that almost all our plans still look feasible.) And before I pledge next year, I get to find out whether this year’s pledged money actually came in. (Again, it’s usually a little bit short, due to people losing jobs and having other unexpected financial problems. But it’s never been so short that fulfilling my commitment made me feel like a sucker.)

That’s what Paris is about. It got each nation to commit to either lower its carbon emissions or (in the case of developing nations) to significantly slow the rate of increase. (China, which still has hundreds of millions of people to bring into the modern age, pledges to stop increasing emissions by 2030. They seem likely to do better than that.) Nations also agree to share information about what they’re doing and how well it’s working. There is, in addition, a literal pledge drive in which rich nations raise money to help poor nations take action. (This is the Green Climate Fund that Trump is revoking Obama’s pledge to.)

So before any nation takes Paris-based action to lower its emissions, it gets to see what the other nations are pledging to do. And along the way, every nation gets to see how faithfully the other nations are carrying out their commitments. It’s a way for sovereign nations to move forward on their own climate-change plans while feeling confident that enough other nations are moving forward that they’re not wasting their effort.

To me, that sounds pretty familiar.

What’s not in the agreement. The Paris Agreement does not specify an carbon-emission goal for any particular nation, or mandate techniques for meeting those goals. What a nation commits to do and how it fulfills that commitment is its own business. The agreement also has no enforcement mechanism, no equivalent of the World Court or the WTO that could pronounce judgment against nations that don’t meet their goals.

So Trump’s claims that the Paris Agreement “blocks the development of clean coal” or mandates that “we can’t build [coal-fired power] plants” or puts our energy reserves “under lock and key” are pure fiction. If anybody had a genuinely clean way to get energy out of coal, it would lower our emissions and help us meet our Paris goals. So clean coal is only “blocked” to the extent that it doesn’t work. And energy reserves are under lock and key only to the extent that we voluntarily forego their use.

Likewise, his statements that “foreign leaders … have more say with respect to the U.S. economy than our own citizens” and that “our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty” are nonsense. Our elected government made a pledge that it can adjust at any time. If it chooses to fulfill that pledge, how it does so is totally its own decision.

Why withdrawing makes no sense. I mean that literally. It’s not just that I disagree with Trump’s decision as a matter of policy, it’s that it makes no sense.

Think about it in terms of the pledge drive. Suppose I believed about my church what Trump seems to believe about Paris: that my pledge is so much higher than other people’s that the rest of the congregation is essentially taking advantage of my generosity. Everybody else should either pony up more money or get used to the idea of a more austere church.

OK then: Does it make sense for me to withdraw from the pledge drive? Not a bit. It’s not the pledge drive itself that I think is unfair to me, it’s the size of my voluntary contribution relative to the total. But I could fix that unilaterally. If I felt like a sucker, it might make sense for me to lower my pledge for next year, or even to call up the church office right now and angrily announce that I’m done contributing for this year, even though I haven’t fulfilled my pledge yet. If they need more money they should get it from somebody else.

Trump could have done that. If he has any particular terms in mind — which I suspect he doesn’t; I doubt he’s thought about it that deeply — the “renegotiation” he called for could just be an announcement. If he believes Obama’s pledge is unfair to us or beyond our abilities, he could lower it to an amount he considers fair and achievable. No other nations, no international authority, would need to sign off.

There is a discussion going on about how fair or achievable Obama’s goals were, or how much sacrifice the country should be willing to make to fulfill them. David Victor’s annotations are sympathetic to the view that Obama’s goals would require considerable economic sacrifice, while Paul Krugman believes that “We have almost all the technology we need, and can be quite confident of developing the rest.” (I haven’t studied the question enough to have a opinion worth sharing.)

But Trump is not engaging in that argument. He could simply tell the world what goals he considers fair and why. But he doesn’t. Instead, he’s withdrawing from the process of setting any goals at all.

Given that I could lower my pledge any time I find appropriate, the only reason I would withdraw from the entire pledge drive is if I acknowledge no responsibility to support the church financially. It would be tantamount to deciding to withdraw from the community.

That’s what Trump is doing here: He’s not defending our sovereignty or protecting our jobs or doing any of the other positive things his speech claims. He’s denying that we have any responsibility to work with the rest of the world in addressing one of the major problems of our era. He is, in essence, withdrawing from the community of nations.

Climate of Propaganda

Bret Stephens’ climate column serves one very important purpose: It illustrates Jason Stanley’s model of propaganda.

Few issues in American politics are as frustrating as climate change. It’s a real concern with potentially catastrophic consequences. The basic scientific description of the problem — burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which warms the planet by blocking infrared radiation from escaping into space — is solid and hasn’t changed for decades. Every few years, the public seems to be getting energized about the problem, and it looks like we might finally get serious about taking action. But then we don’t.

At the moment we’re in one of our hopeless phases, where science-deniers are in power and we have to focus on preserving what little progress we’ve made rather than building on it. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up every year. That’s not a conjecture or the result of some complicated computer model, it’s a measurement that gets made regularly by a NOAA laboratory on a mountaintop in Hawaii.

If the overall situation is frustrating in one way, attempting to change people’s minds about climate change is frustrating in a different way. You can go into an argument feeling that you have facts and logic on your side, and feel the same way afterwards, but at the same time realize that you didn’t convince anybody. Too often, environmentalists come out of a debate with a feeling of “What just happened?”

A good case in point was the discussion sparked ten days ago by Bret Stephens’ introductory NYT column “Climate of Complete Certainty“, which raised the specter of “overweening scientism” — radical environmentalists who claim 100% certainty for their predictions of global catastrophe and are “censoriously asserting [their] moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables”. The problem, in Stephens’ presentation, isn’t the scientists doing honest research on the climate, it’s the people pushing “ever harder to pass climate legislation” and “demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy”.

In many ways, the column was just another page from the science-denial playbook written in the 1970s by the tobacco industry: Emphasize the uncertainty of scientific findings, and from there argue that any action would be too hasty. We shouldn’t ban tobacco products, or restrict where smokers can light up, or put excessive taxes on cigarettes, or hold tobacco companies liable for public health problems, or even change our own individual smoking habits, because there’s still doubt. Of course we should take action once it’s been proven that tobacco causes cancer, but until the evidence is so conclusive that even the Tobacco Institute is convinced — which it never will be — we should wait and see. [1]

So Stephens isn’t anti-climate-research, he’s just criticizing the people who want to take action based on that research.

Or is he? There’s a puzzling vagueness to the column that made it very hard to argue against. Stephens didn’t name any of the “overweening” people who claim total certainty for uncertain things, or even identify what those claims are. The only specific example in the piece is a lengthy analogy that has no direct connection to the climate: the data-driven managers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, who believed they were coasting to victory. They were wrong, so maybe the data-driven predictions of unnamed environmentalists are wrong too.

In other words, Stephens’ column is a very good example of that what-just-happened phenomenon. When I first read it, it seemed to be making some larger point that cried out for refutation. But the objectionable point had a vaporous quality; it didn’t seem to be contained in any particular sentence that I could quote and refute. Take this one for example:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

Like a number of other critics, I might argue with the characterization of 1.5 degrees in 130 years as “modest” — until humanity started affecting in the climate, a change like that usually took millennia rather than decades — but overall, the statement is correct: It’s indisputable that we’re changing the climate, but it’s a lot iffier to predict exactly how fast that change will play out or which catastrophic events will happen when. For example, the land-borne ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica might trickle slowly into the oceans and raise sea level over centuries, or one or more of them might suddenly slide into the water like an ice cube dropped into a glass of Coke. Nobody really knows.

Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter that Stephens quotes admiringly (but who believes that “uncertainty, informed and bounded by science, is actionable knowledge” [2]), notes that changes in rainfall patterns are hard to predict: Some models show droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, while others foresee rainfall increasing.

I don’t have any trouble acknowledging that kind of uncertainty, and neither do most of the environmental writers I follow. So why do I feel like something Stephens’ column demands an argument?

What we’re seeing here is a masterful example of propaganda, as described in Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works, which I reviewed in 2015.

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

What’s being activated in Stephens’ column is a stereotype that Fox News, talk radio, and other conservative media has been drilling into its audience for years: Liberals don’t respect you. They look down on you, they think you’re stupid, and because they’re educated they think they can fool you with technical mumbo-jumbo that isn’t true.

That’s the point of talking about the Clintons and using words like deplorable. By doing so, Stephens invokes a previously successful application of the stereotype. You know the way you resent and distrust Hillary? You should feel that way about anybody who wants action on climate change.

It’s also the point of offering no other examples, and no examples at all from the environmental movement. Who does the stereotype apply to? Whoever you need it to apply to. If listening to Bill Nye or Bill McKibben makes you feel stupid, apply it to them. Al Gore, sure. Your niece who just got back from college, or that know-it-all at work, absolutely. Even real climate researchers like Jim Hansen and Michael Mann — the kind of scientists Stephens’ column seems explicitly not to criticize — can be lumped in if you need to.

If Stephens actually made a case against any of those people, that attack could be fact-checked and refuted. If he specified some particular prediction as over-the-top doomsaying, that prediction could either be defended or it could be demonstrated that the real leaders of the environmental movement do acknowledge the uncertainties involved. But a charge made with complete vagueness, one left hanging for its target audience to apply as it sees fit, can’t be answered in any logical way.

That’s how propaganda works. And in particular, that’s the way you will see propaganda appear in conservative columns in respectable mainstream outlets like The New York Times, or in public speeches by supposedly respectable politicians. The real dirty work has been done elsewhere. The lies and stereotypes have already been planted: Immigrants are criminals who endanger your family. Muslims want to take over America, not assimilate into it; and they all support terrorism whether they admit it or not. The poor are too lazy to work, but want you to support them anyway. Blacks are inferior and can’t really compete with whites, so they want the government to take your job and give it to them.

Anyone who wants to take advantage of such notions doesn’t have to state them in places where critics might demand evidence or poke holes in the argument. Like Bret Stephens, the propagandist just has to allude to them vaguely. The target audience will receive the message, and will enjoy the spectacle of opponents flailing vainly to refute what was never really said.

[1] The tobacco playbook and how it has been used in all sorts of controversies over the last half century has been described in two books I’ve reviewed here in the past: Merchants of Doubt and Doubt is Their Product.

[2] I wish he’d stated that in less complicated language, because it’s a point that needs more emphasis in the national debate, and doesn’t require any difficult scientific analysis.

In everyday life, we deal with uncertainty in two very different ways, depending on the circumstances. When we don’t know what might happen, sometimes we freeze until we do know. If, for example, you have a peanut allergy and you don’t know whether the salad the waitress brought you includes some peanut-derived ingredient, you don’t just eat it and hope you don’t wind up in the ER. You send the waitress to talk to the chef, and you don’t do anything until she gets back.

But in other situations, we respond to uncertainty by preparing for all plausible outcomes. When your child is born, you have no idea whether she’ll want to go to college or what college will cost in 18 years. But you don’t wait 16 or 17 years until you have a clearer idea of what she’ll need; if you do, it’ll already be too late to start saving. The prudent thing is to start that college fund as soon as you can, even though you can’t be 100% certain it’s necessary.

If you’re not sure whether you left the oven on, you don’t start preparing for the possibility that your house might be about to burn down; you stop everything and go home to check, or have someone else check. But if you’re not sure whether your department is about to have a round of lay-offs, you don’t freeze until you know for sure; you start getting your resume in order and checking the temperature of the job market, just in case.

This isn’t fancy research-scientist talk; this is how ordinary people live. Sometimes uncertainty freezes you; sometimes it springs you into action.

We’ve let the fossil-fuel lobby get away with the argument that on climate change, uncertainty should freeze us. (Nobody can tell us exactly when Miami will be underwater, so let’s not do anything.) But this point didn’t make sense when the tobacco industry used it — you can’t be sure cigarettes will give you cancer, so keep puffing away — and it doesn’t make sense now. Certainly that’s not how the Pentagon or the insurance industry is thinking about climate change; they’re planning to live in the future however it turns out, so they’re preparing for the possibilities.

That’s just common sense. Rising oceans, more violent weather, changes in rainfall patterns — these are more like your daughter’s college fund or the possible lay-off than like the salad dressing that might contain peanut oil: Even if they’re uncertain, they’re significant possibilities that we need to be preparing against. If there were some quick way to find out for sure what’s going to happen — asking the chef, checking the oven — maybe it would make sense to freeze and wait; but nobody’s come up with a way to do that, so our preparations have to move forward without that certainty.

The Election Is About the Country, Not the Candidates

Citizens shouldn’t let the media make us forget about ourselves.

Judging by the amount of media attention they got, these were the most important political stories of the week: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders agreed to debate, but then Trump backed out, leading Sanders supporters to launch the #ChickenTrump hashtag. A report on Hillary Clinton’s emails came out. A poll indicated that the California primary is closer than previously thought. Trump’s delegate total went over 50%. Elizabeth Warren criticized Trump, so he began calling her “Pocahontas”. Sanders demanded that Barney Frank be removed as the chair of the DNC’s platform committee. Trump told a California audience that the state isn’t in a drought and has “plenty of water“. Trump accused Bill Clinton of being a rapist, and brought up the 1990s conspiracy theory that Vince Foster was murdered. President Obama said that the prospect of a Trump presidency had foreign leaders “rattled“, and Trump replied that “When you rattle someone, that’s good.” Clinton charged that Trump had been rooting for the 2008 housing collapse. Pundits told us that the tone of the campaign was only going to get worse from here; Trump and Clinton have record disapproval ratings for presidential nominees, and so the debate will have to focus on making the other one even more unpopular.

If you are an American who follows political news, you probably heard or read most of these stories, and you may have gotten emotionally involved — excited or worried or angry — about one or more of them. But if at any time you took a step back from the urgent tone of the coverage, you might have wondered what any of it had to do with you, or with the country you live in. The United States has serious issues to think about and serious decisions to make about what kind of country it is or wants to be. This presidential election, and the congressional elections that are also happening this fall, will play an important role in those decisions.

That’s why I think it’s important, both in our own minds and in our interactions with each other, to keep pulling the discussion back to us and our country. The flaws and foibles and gaffes and strategies of the candidates are shiny objects that can be hard to ignore, and Trump in particular is unusually gifted at drawing attention. But the government of the United States is supposed to be “of the People, by the People, and for the People”. It’s supposed to be about us, not about them.

As I’ve often discussed before, the important issues of our country and how it will be governed, of the decisions we have to make and the implications those decisions will have, are not news in the sense that our journalistic culture understands it. Our sense of those concerns evolves slowly, and almost never changes significantly from one day to the next. It seldom crystallizes into events that are breaking and require minute-to-minute updates. At best, a breaking news event like the Ferguson demonstrations or the Baltimore riot will occasionally give journalists a hook on which to hang a discussion of an important issue that isn’t news, like our centuries-long racial divide. (Picture trying to cover it without the hook: “This just in: America’s racial problem has changed since 1865 and 1965, but it’s still there.”)

So let’s back away from the addictive soap opera of the candidates and try to refocus on the questions this election really ought to be about.

Who can be a real American?

In the middle of the 20th century (about the time I was born), if you had asked people anywhere in the world to describe “an American”, you’d have gotten a pretty clear picture: Americans were white and spoke English. They were Christians (with a few Jews mixed in, but they were assimilating and you probably couldn’t tell), and mostly Protestants. They lived in households where two parents — a man and a woman, obviously — were trying (or hoping) to raise at least two children. They either owned a house (that they probably still owed money on) or were saving to buy one. They owned at least one car, and hoped to buy a bigger and better one soon.

If you needed someone to lead or speak for a group of Americans, you picked a man. American women might get an education and work temporarily as teachers or nurses or secretaries, but only until they could find a husband and start raising children.

Of course, everyone knew that other kinds of people lived in America: blacks, obviously; Hispanics and various recent immigrants whose English might be spotty; Native Americans, who were still Indians then; Jews who weren’t assimilating and might make a nuisance about working on Saturday, or even wear a yarmulke in public; single people who weren’t looking to marry or raise children (but might be sexually active anyway); women with real careers; gays and lesbians (but not transgender people or even bisexuals, whose existence wasn’t recognized yet); atheists, Muslims, and followers of non-Biblical religions; the homeless and others who lived in long-term poverty; folks whose physical or mental abilities were outside the “normal” range; and so on.

But they were Americans-with-an-asterisk. Such people weren’t really “us”, but we were magnanimous enough to tolerate them living in our country — for which we expected them to be grateful.

Providing services for the “real” Americans was comparatively easy: You could do everything in English. You didn’t have to concern yourself with handicapped access or learning disabilities. You promoted people who fit your image of a leader, and didn’t worry about whether that was fair. You told whatever jokes real Americans found funny, because anybody those jokes might offend needed to get a sense of humor. The schools taught white male history and celebrated Christian holidays. Every child had two married parents, and you could assume that the mother was at home during the day. Everybody had a definite gender and was straight, so if you kept the boys and girls apart you had dealt with the sex issue.

If those arrangements didn’t work for somebody, that was their problem. If they wanted the system to work better for them, they should learn to be more normal.

It’s easy to imagine that this mid-20th-century Pleasantville America is ancient history now, but it existed in living memory and still figures as ideal in many people’s minds. Explicitly advocating a return to those days is rare. But that desire isn’t gone, it’s just underground.

For years, that underground nostalgia has figured in a wide variety of political issues. But it has been the particular genius of Donald Trump to pull them together and bring them as close to the surface as possible without making an explicit appeal to turn back the clock and re-impose the norms of that era. “Make America great again!” doesn’t exactly promise a return to Pleasantville, but for many people that’s what it evokes.

What, after all, does the complaint about political correctness amount to once you get past “Why can’t I get away with behaving like my grandfather did?”

We can picture rounding up and deporting undocumented Mexicans by the millions, because they’re Mexicans. They were never going to be real Americans anyway. Ditto for Muslims. It would have been absurd to stop letting Italians into the country because of Mafia violence, or to shut off Irish immigration because of IRA terrorism. But Muslims were never going to be real Americans anyway, so why not keep them out? (BTW: As I explained a few weeks ago, the excuse that the Muslim ban is “temporary” is bogus. If nobody can tell you when or how something is going to end, it’s not temporary.)

All the recent complaints about “religious liberty” fall apart once you dispense with the notion that Christian sensibilities deserve more respect than non-Christian ones, or that same-sex couples deserve less respect than opposite-sex couples.

On the other side, Black Lives Matter is asking us to address that underground, often subconscious, feeling that black lives really aren’t on the same level as white lives. If a young black man is dead, it just doesn’t have the same claim on the public imagination — or on the diligence of the justice system — that a white death would. How many black or Latina girls vanish during a news cycle that obsesses over some missing white girl? (For that matter, how many white presidents have seen a large chunk of the country doubt their birth certificates, or have been interrupted during State of the Union addresses by congressmen shouting “You lie!”?)

But bringing myself back to the theme: The issue here isn’t Trump, it’s us. Do we want to think of some Americans as more “real” than others, or do we want to continue the decades-long process of bringing more Americans into the mainstream?

That question won’t be stated explicitly on your ballot this November, like a referendum issue. But it’s one of the most important things we’ll be deciding.

What role should American power play in the world?

I had a pretty clear opinion on that last question, but I find this one much harder to call.

The traditional answer, which goes back to the Truman administration and has existed as a bipartisan consensus in the foreign-policy establishment ever since, is that American power is the bedrock on which to build a system of alliances that maintains order in the world. The archetype here is NATO, which has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years.

That policy involves continuing to spend a lot on our military, and risks getting us involved in wars from time to time. (Within that establishment consensus, though, there is still variation in how willing we should be to go to war. The Iraq War, for example, was a choice of the Bush administration, not a necessary result of the bipartisan consensus.) The post-Truman consensus views America as “the indispensable nation”; without us, the world community lacks both the means and the will to stand up to rogue actors on the world stage.

A big part of our role is in nuclear non-proliferation. We intimidate countries like Iran out of building a bomb, and we extend our nuclear umbrella over Japan so that it doesn’t need one. The fact that no nuclear weapon has been fired in anger since 1945 is a major success of the establishment consensus.

Of our current candidates, Hillary Clinton (who as Secretary of State negotiated the international sanctions that forced Iran into the recent nuclear deal) is the one most in line with the foreign policy status quo. Bernie Sanders is more identified with strengthened international institutions which — if they could be constructed and work — would make American leadership more dispensable. To the extent that he has a clear position at all, Donald Trump is more inclined to pull back and let other countries fend for themselves. He has, for example, said that NATO is “obsolete” and suggested that we might be better off if Japan had its own nuclear weapons and could defend itself against North Korea’s nukes. On the other hand, he has also recently suggested that we bomb Libya, so it’s hard to get a clear handle on whether he’s more or less hawkish than Clinton.

Should we be doing anything about climate change?

Among scientists, there really are two sides to the climate-change debate: One side believes that the greenhouse gases we are pumping into the atmosphere threaten to change the Earth’s climate in ways that will cause serious distress to millions or even billions of people, and the other side is funded by the fossil fuel industry.

It’s really that simple. There are honest scientific disagreements about the pace of climate change and its exact mechanisms, but the basic picture is clear to any scientist who comes to the question without a vested interest: Burning fossil fuels is raising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. An increase in greenhouse gases causes the Earth to radiate less heat into space. So you would expect to see a long-term warming trend since the Industrial Revolution got rolling, and in fact that’s what the data shows — despite the continued existence of snowballs, which has been demonstrated by a senator funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels is both convenient and fun, at least in the short term. And if you don’t put any price on the long-term damage you’re doing, it’s also economical. In reality, doing nothing about climate change is like going without health insurance or refusing to do any maintenance on your house or car. Those decisions can improve your short-term budget picture, which now might have room for that Hawaiian vacation your original calculation said you couldn’t afford. Your mom might insist that you should account for your risk of getting sick or needing some major repair, but she’s always been a spoilsport.

That’s the debate that’s going on now. If you figure in the real economic costs of letting the Earth get hotter and hotter — dealing with tens of millions of refugees from regions that will soon be underwater, building a seawall around Florida, moving our breadbasket from Iowa to wherever the temperate zone is going to be in 50 years, rebuilding after the stronger and more frequent hurricanes that are coming, and so on, then burning fossil fuels is really, really expensive. But if you decide to let future generations worry about those costs and just get on with enjoying life now, then coal and oil are still cheap compared to most renewable energy sources.

So what should we do?

Unfortunately, nobody has come up with a good way to re-insert the costs of climate change into the market without involving government, or to do any effective mitigation without international agreements among governments, of which the recent Paris Agreement is just a baby step in the right direction. And to one of our political parties, government is a four-letter word and world government is an apocalyptic horror. So the split inside the Republican Party is between those who pretend climate change isn’t happening, and those who think nothing can or should be done about it. (Trump is on the pretend-it-isn’t-happening side.)

President Obama has been taking some action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but without cooperation from Congress his powers are pretty limited. (It’s worth noting how close we came to passing a cap-and-trade bill to put a price on carbon before the Republicans took over Congress in 2010. What little Obama’s managed to do since may still get undone by the Supreme Court, particularly if its conservative majority is restored.)

Both Clinton and Sanders take climate change seriously. As is true across the board, Sanders’ proposals are simpler and more sweeping (like “ban fracking”) while Clinton’s are wonkier and more complicated. (In a debate, she listed the problems with fracking — methane leaks, groundwater pollution, earthquakes — and proposed controlling them through regulation. She concluded: “By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”) But like Obama, neither of them will accomplish much if we can’t flip Congress.

Trump, meanwhile, is doing his best impersonation of an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. He thinks climate change is a hoax, wants to reverse President Obama’s executive orders to limit carbon pollution, has pledged to undo the Paris Agreement, and to get back to burning more coal.

How should we defend ourselves from terrorism?

There are two points of view on ISIS and Al Qaeda-style terrorism, and they roughly correspond to the split between the two parties.

From President Obama’s point of view, the most important thing about battle with terrorism is to keep it contained. Right now, a relatively small percentage of the world’s Muslims support ISIS or Al Qaeda, while the vast majority are hoping to find a place for themselves inside the world order as it exists. (That includes 3.3 million American Muslims. If any more than a handful of them supported terrorism, we’d be in serious trouble.) We want to keep tightening the noose on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and keep closing in on terrorist groups elsewhere in the world, while remaining on good terms with the rest of the Muslim community.

From this point of view — which I’ve described in more detail here and illustrated with an analogy here — the worst thing that could happen would be for these terrorist incidents to touch off a world war between Islam and Christendom.

The opposite view, represented not just by Trump but by several of the Republican rivals he defeated, is that we are already in such a war, so we should go all out and win it: Carpet bomb any territory ISIS holds, without regard to civilian casualties. Discriminate openly against Muslims at home and ban any new Muslims from coming here.

Like Obama, I believe that the main result of these policies would be to convince Muslims that there is no place for them in a world order dominated by the United States. Rather than a few dozen pro-ISIS American terrorists, we might have tens of thousands. If we plan to go that way, we might as well start rounding up 3.3 million Americans right now.

Clinton and Sanders are both roughly on the same page with Obama. Despite being Jewish and having lived on a kibbutz, Sanders is less identified with the current Israeli government than either Obama or Clinton, to the extent that makes a difference.

Can we give all Americans a decent shot at success? How?

Pre-Trump, Republicans almost without exception argued that all we need to do to produce explosive growth and create near-limitless economic opportunity for everybody is to get government out of the way: Lower taxes, cut regulations, cut government programs, negotiate free trade with other countries, and let the free market work its magic. (Jeb Bush, for example, argued that his small-government policies as governor of Florida — and not the housing bubble that popped shortly after he left office — had led to 4% annual economic growth, so similar policies would do the same thing for the whole country.)

Trump has called this prescription into question.

If you think about it, the economy is rigged, the banking system is rigged, there’s a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours, and that’s why a lot of you haven’t had an effective wage increase in 20 years.

However, he has not yet replaced it with any coherent economic view or set of policies. His tax plan, for example, is the same sort of let-the-rich-keep-their-money proposal any other Republican might make. He promises to renegotiate our international trade agreements in ways that will bring back all the manufacturing jobs that left the country over the last few decades, but nobody’s been able to explain exactly how that would work.

At least, though, Trump is recognizing the long-term stagnation of America’s middle class. Other Republicans liked to pretend that was all Obama’s fault, as if the 2008 collapse hadn’t happened under Bush, and — more importantly — as if the overall wage stagnation didn’t date back to Reagan.

One branch of liberal economics, the one that is best exemplified by Bernie Sanders, argues that the problem is the over-concentration of wealth at the very top. This can devolve into a the-rich-have-your-money argument, but the essence of it is more subtle than that: Over-concentration of wealth has created a global demand problem. When middle-class and poor people have more money, they spend it on things whose production can be increased, like cars or iPhones or Big Macs. That increased production creates jobs and puts more money in the pockets of poor and middle-class people, resulting in a virtuous demand/production/demand cycle that is more-or-less the definition of economic growth.

By contrast, when very rich people have more money, they are more likely to spend it on unique items, like van Gogh paintings or Mediterranean islands. The production of such things can’t be increased, so what we see instead are asset bubbles, where production flattens and the prices of rare goods get bid higher and higher.

For the last few decades, we’ve been living in an asset-bubble world rather than an economic-growth world. The liberal solution is to tax that excess money away from the rich, and spend it on things that benefit poor and middle-class people, like health care and infrastructure.

However, there is a long-term problem that neither liberal nor conservative economics has a clear answer for: As artificial intelligence creeps into our technology, we get closer to a different kind of technological unemployment than we have seen before, in which people of limited skills may have nothing they can offer the economy. (In A Farewell to Alms Gregory Clark makes a scary analogy: In 1901, the British economy provided employment for 3 million horses, but almost all those jobs have gone away. Why couldn’t that happen to people?)

As we approach that AI-driven world, the connection between production and consumption — which has driven the world economy for as long as there has been a world economy — will have to be rethought. I don’t see anybody in either party doing that.

So what major themes have I left out? Put them in the comments.

Climate Denial is a Sunday Truth

On Monday morning, the business community knows better.

Probably every religion has what in the Christian world is known as Sunday truth: those comfortable notions that make you nod and shout “Amen!” when you hear them from the pulpit, but which conveniently evaporate from your mind by Monday morning when you have to conduct serious business.

Centuries ago, Sunday truth was mostly moral: Lying is always bad; you should never take advantage of the helpless; charging interest on a loan is wrong; and other sweet ideas that businessmen found inconvenient. But when the scientific revolution got rolling in the 1600s, educated people began to experience a different kind of Sunday truth: You’d agree on Sunday that the Earth was the center of the universe, and then on Monday use Copernicus’ methods to compute the dates of future Easters.

From there it only got worse. Now there are biologists who nod on Sunday to the idea that evolution is a satanic lie, and then on Monday go back to work in a profession that makes no sense without the evolutionary theory that holds it all together. Professors of linguistics teach the Tower of Babel in Sunday school, then tell their secular students something completely different on Monday. Astronomers listen without objection when preachers tell them the universe is less than 10,000 years old, then work out better methods for detecting stars billions of light-years away. Geologists likewise acknowledge a young Earth on Sunday, and then (when they are searching for oil on Monday) look for rock formations millions of years old.

Critics of religion have slang for this tendency to forget everything your profession teaches you when you step inside a church: It’s called “checking your brain at the door” — a colorful phrase that conjures images of brains in cubbyholes waiting to be reclaimed when the service is over, as illustrated here by the Naked Pastor.

When political movements become ideologically extreme, they can develop their own forms of Sunday truth and build their own check-stations for brains. As in religion, you say things not because they are true, but because you want to stay in the community. If the community defines itself by a set of bizarre beliefs, then you loudly confess those beliefs in order to assert your identity as a member in good standing. But you’re not stupid, so you don’t act on those beliefs when people aren’t looking and you have serious decisions to make.

The business community understands this. This week I found myself reading a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch report urging its investment clients to invest in stocks related to water. It outlined the global pressures on water supplies, and then titled a section “Climate change is making things worse”:

Given how closely food, water and energy security are connected, an impending perfect storm of events appears to be looming for the food and energy sectors, in a world constrained by extreme weather and climate change.

No caveats, no footnotes, no if-this-turns-out-to-be-true. Politically, Bank of America’s contribution profile leans conservative; their top three recipients are the Republican National Committee and the national committees to elect Republicans to the House and Senate. But if you’re trusting Bank of America to advise you on investing, they want you to know that climate change is happening and you’d better adjust to it.

And that makes me wonder how many BoA/ML clients are making a similar distinction between Sunday and Monday truths. Your investments are between you and your broker, so maybe at that point Tea Partiers retrieve their brains from the check room and act on what they know is real: climate change.

Insurance companies (who also give more to Republicans than Democrats) have been adjusting to climate change for years, because this is money we’re talking about. It’s serious. You don’t choose ideology over science when there’s money on the line. Evan Mills watches the insurance industry’s response to climate change for Lawrence Berkeley National Lab:

Allstate, for instance, has said that climate change has prompted it to cancel or not renew policies in many Gulf Coast states, with recent hurricanes wiping out all of the profits it had garnered in 75 years of selling homeowners insurance (Conley 2007). The company has cut the number of homeowners’ policies in Florida from 1.2 million to 400,000 with an ultimate target of no more than 100,000. The company has curtailed activity in nearly a dozen other states. In 2008, State Farm—Florida’s largest private insurer—stopped writing new policies in the state (Garcia and Benn 2008). This was after suspending sales of new commercial and homeowners policies in Mississippi the year before (Tuckey 2007). A few months later, after being denied a 47% average rate increase, State Farm announced a complete pull-out, (Hays 2009). About 1.2 million customers will be affected. The Florida Insurance Commissioner referred to the decision as “unnecessary destabilization of the insurance market” (Hays 2009). The editor of trade magazine published an editorial about the problem entitled “Like a Bad Neighbor?” (Friedman 2009).

Also in 2008, Farmers announced that they would stop writing homeowners policies throughout North Carolina and not renew existing ones. Such decisions are not taken lightly; Farmers will forego $55 million in annual premiums but claims that losses would be twice this amount (Hemenway 2008). … Insurers are recognizing that simply raising prices to keep pace with the impacts of climate change may be an elusive undertaking.

Munich Re is a reinsurance company — its clients are primarily other insurance companies, not the general public — whose profitability depends on its accuracy in assessing risk. It describes climate change as “one of the greatest risks facing mankind”.

That’s how the business community acts on Monday mornings, when it’s doing serious work. But business is also an important part of the Republican establishment, and Republicanism has become an extreme ideological movement defined by bizarre beliefs, one of which is climate change denial. And so you have moments like this during the debate between GOP candidates for the Senate in North Carolina — one of those states where insurance companies are cutting back coverage because of climate change. “Is climate change a fact?” asks the moderator. Chuckles are heard in the audience and all four candidates — even the eventual winner Thom Tillis, supposedly the “establishment” candidate — say a curt “no”. (The Rand Paul candidate, Greg Brannon, adds: “God controls the climate.“, upstaging Mike Huckabee’s candidate, Mark Harris, who is supposed to represent the GOP’s evangelical wing.)

This is typical. After Jon Huntsman’s failure as the reality-based Republican presidential candidate, no one wants to take up that banner. Increasingly, rank-and-file Republicans (about half nationally*, including 61% of those who don’t identify as Tea Party) believe climate change is real, and about half of those attribute it to human activity. But what Republican leaders are willing to stand up in public and represent that position? Anybody?

Many of them know the facts. In late 2007, I sat in the front row at a John McCain town hall meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire, a few blocks from where I live. He told us emphatically that climate change was happening and the government needed to do something about it. The following May, he still whole-heartedly supported the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill. But by fall, his ads were implicitly against cap-and-trade, and by the time he ran for re-election to the Senate in 2010, he was openly against his own bill.

Such Galileo-like recantations are a standard feature of repressive religious environments. (See Romney and RomneyCare.) Did McCain learn something new that changed his mind? Don’t be silly; the scientific support for climate change just keeps getting stronger. But he needed to re-affirm his conservative identity, so he accepted conservative Sunday truth the same way he accepted Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The problem with adopting a Sunday truth, though, is that sometimes it’s not enough to nod and say “Amen!”; you may need to defend the Sunday truth against the infidels. And that can be difficult when you’re smart enough to know that it’s nonsense.

That’s what happened to Marco Rubio this week. He has already wrecked his position in the early presidential polls by trying to solve the immigration problem — a conservative candidate isn’t supposed to try to pass bipartisan legislation that addresses a problem — and even recanting hasn’t restored him to grace. He can’t afford to contradict the right-wing catechism anywhere else, so when conservative-friendly interviewer Jonathan Karl brought up climate change Rubio recited the Sunday truth:

I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. … And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.

But sadly (for him) that wasn’t the end of it. Tuesday at the National Press Club he was asked: “What information, reports, studies or otherwise are you relying on to inform and reach your conclusion that human activity is not to blame for climate change?” He had to dodge, because he had been asserting his conservative identity, not championing a coherent theory that he adopted after prudent investigation. Instead, he put forward a new position:

The truth of the matter is the United States is a country. It is not a planet. … But for people to go out and say if you passed this bill that I am proposing, this will somehow lead us to have less tornadoes and hurricanes. And that’s what I take issue with.

In other words, the United States can’t fix climate change alone — a point even Al Gore wouldn’t dispute. So that response wasn’t satisfactory either, and Rubio had to go on Sean Hannity’s radio show and try again. This time he opted for distraction by flashing the big, shiny object of abortion: Liberals deny the settled science that human life begins at conception**, so why shouldn’t he deny the science of climate change?

I can’t imagine Rubio is endearing himself to the conservative base with these awkward gyrations. But that’s the problem when you show up on Monday morning spouting Sunday truth: You can’t give reasons, because you didn’t adopt the position for reasons. It’s about identity, not evidence or logic.

So that’s how you have to defend it. It’s simple, Marco: The Koch brothers said it. I believe it. That settles it.

* The recent trend line here might be suspect. A lot of polls that track opinion by party identification show a similar divergence between Republican and independent opinion. The reason isn’t that people in those camps are changing their minds in opposite directions, but that a lot of Tea Partiers have begun telling pollsters they’re independent rather than Republican.

** In addition to putting forward a two-wrongs-make-a-right argument — my denial of science doesn’t justify your denial of science — Rubio was also attacking a straw man. I’ve never heard any abortion-rights activist deny that a zygote is alive or that its DNA is human. The argument is about the point at which a fetus has developed sufficiently to merit the moral status we accord to a person. A typical abortion-rights position — mine, for example — is that a fetus grows into its personhood rather than being a person from conception. The disagreement is entirely moral and spiritual, and is unrelated to the science Rubio cites.


Three things are never satisfied. Yea, four say not “It is enough”:
the grave, and the barren womb, and the earth that is not filled with water, and the fire.

— Proverbs 30: 15-16

This week everybody was talking about industrial accidents

The death toll from the factory collapse in Bangladesh keeps rising, now at 650.

All week, liberal web sites have been full of socially-conscious shopping tips about what brands may or may not be involved in corner-cutting third-world factories like the ones that ordered their workers back into a building whose walls were cracking. But that’s a band-aid at best.

The fundamental problem here is that workers have no power. Without their jobs they’d be so desperately poor that going back into a crumbling factory seems less risky than standing up to their bosses. As long as that is true, all the incentives in the capitalist system work to circumvent the consciences of shoppers. The most “efficient” way for the system to deal with the current situation is not to improve safety, but to fool socially conscious consumers into thinking something is being done. The system will keep working on that “efficient” solution until it figures out a way to do it, because that’s where the money is.

Just ask Walmart, whose greenwashing campaign is working great for the corporate image, even if it isn’t doing much for the environment.

So sure, change your buying patterns in whatever way seems appropriate. But if you’re doing that instead of pushing for worker rights, the corporate power structure thanks you.

Oh, and in case you think this is just a third-world problem, don’t forget about the fertilizer factory explosion in West, Texas. We hear so much about the costs of government regulation, but the costs of non-regulation are even higher.

and Jason Collins

Basketball player Jason Collins became the first active professional athlete in a major American sport to announce he is gay. His article in Sports Illustrated talks about the pressure of hiding a major area of your life not just from the public, but from teammates as well.

Collins is a 12-season NBA veteran who has never been a star and seldom starts, but consistently fills a role a lot of teams need: a 7-footer who can come off the bench and provide defense and rebounding when your starting big guys are in foul trouble or need a rest. He played for the Celtics and Wizards last season and is currently a free agent. He is in his declining years as an athlete, but Nate Silver’s comparisons to similar players in the past indicates there was a somewhat better than 50-50 chance he would have a job next season before his announcement. (So whether he gets signed next year is not necessarily proof of either prejudice or favoritism.)

Comparisons to Jackie Robinson are appropriate in some ways but not others. Robinson was a uniquely talented athlete whose statistics (compiled over only half a career, since he was kept out of the majors until age 28) could have put him in the Hall of Fame even without his off-the-field significance. Obviously, Collins is not in that class. And I’m sure Robinson would have had an easier time if he could have played 12 years in the majors and then announced he was black.

Still, Collins’ announcement required courage. (Anyone who thinks it didn’t needs to explain why no one has done it before.) He has made himself a symbol. Like Robinson, Collins will be cheered and booed for what he is, not who he is.

Some commenters clearly resent the fact that Collins is being cheered by many. There’s an intentional cluelessness in Ben Shapiro’s tweet: “So Jason Collins is a hero because he’s gay?” What’s striking, though, is the way such views are being rejected in neutral forums. Check out the comments on this anti-Collins editorial by a small-town Illinois sports editor.

Naturally, this popular rejection of bigotry is being spun as some kind of unfair discrimination against bigots. There’s a name for that: privileged distress.

But the biggest significance of Collins’ announcement (and the generally positive response) is on the many closeted gay athletes in high school and college, like the one profiled by Sunday by the Portland Press Herald.

But I wrote about sustainable economics

I reviewed the recent book Enough is Enough in Prosperity Without Growth?

and you also might be interested in …

The observatory at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii is recording atmospheric carbon dioxide approaching 400 parts per million “for the first time in human history“. The graph tells the story.

This re-emphasizes a point I’ve made before: When someone says they don’t believe in global warming, or don’t believe humans cause it, ask them which part of the argument they doubt. Here are the steps:

  1. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Duh.)
  2. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been going up more-or-less continuously since the Industrial Age got rolling. (That’s this graph.)
  3. Atmospheric carbon dioxide warms the Earth through a greenhouse effect. (Infra-red radiation that would ordinarily dissipate into outer space gets reflected back to the planet surface.)

Given these rising carbon levels, which we can measure directly, global warming is what a rational person would expect. The argument against it needs to be a little stronger than just “maybe something else will happen”.

The public got its first look at the George W. Bush Library this week. I had been hearing about the Decision Point Theater game, where visitors supposedly hear the kind of advice Bush got at some key point in his administration, then get to make a decision. Now we finally see what that looks like.

You know what it looks like? The whole Bush administration. The single thing most typical of Bush was his shameless spin — rhetoric that made you think of one thing, but then if you challenged it as a lie, his people would explain that it was true because of something else entirely. So Saddam “supported international terrorist organizations” — which was supposed to make you think he was helping Al Qaeda plan the next 9-11. But if you pushed back you’d hear about connections to Hamas or Abu Nidal, not Al Qaeda or Bin Laden. They’d talk about Al Qaeda affiliates “operating in Iraq”, but if you pushed you’d find they were talking about a Kurdish zone Saddam had lost control of. And so on.

Bush is still spinning in exactly the same ways. Rachel Maddow shows clips from the DPT section on invading Iraq, calls BS on it, and then comments:

The case to invade Iraq was not “mistaken”. The case to invade Iraq was cooked up. It was a hoax perpetrated on the American people. And they are still cooking it up, right now.

Here’s one of those polls that makes you wonder if people really believe what they say. By a 44%-31% margin, Republicans agree with the statement “In the next few years, an armed rebellion might be necessary to protect our liberties.” (Democrats disagree 61%-18%.)

If I actually believed that, I think I’d be doing more than just stockpiling assault rifles. (After all, the government has tanks and planes.) I’d for sure have my escape route out of the country planned and a stash of money at my planned destination. Are people really doing that kind of stuff? In large numbers? Or has answering polls become part of some big fantasy game?

If there’s anyplace in America that might need an armed rebellion to maintain democracy, it’s North Carolina. The Republican leadership in the legislature is so intent on getting rid of the state’s renewable energy program that they declared victory in a voice vote and refused requests to have votes actually counted.

Mitch McConnell is catching on to this social-media thing. If your campaign video is getting as many hits as you want, you can buy the extra hits.

I often find myself telling non-religious people that right-wing Christians really aren’t as bad as they think. Well, the science education at Blue Ridge Christian Academy in South Carolina is worse than you think.

It’s been a heavy week. Let’s end with some entertainment:

A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline

If you want to construct a simple, suitable-for-casual-conversation argument in favor of the Keystone XL Pipeline, you probably already know everything you need. The ideas are easy to grasp, and the people who want you to construct such arguments have a lot money to get their message out. Here are the pieces:

  • The oil sands are just sitting up there in Canada. BP says: “The province of Alberta contains recoverable oil sands reserves of approximately 170 billion barrels, the third largest reserves in the world.”
  • Giving our oil money to Canada makes a lot more sense than giving it to Saudi Arabia or Iran or Venezuela. For a lot of reasons: Of all the people in the world, Canadians are the ones most likely to send that dollar right back to us by buying something we make or coming here on vacation. They’re also probably not going to use the money to fund terrorism or anti-American propaganda. And we don’t have to worry much about them shutting the oil off to manipulate us or punish us politically.
  • Building the pipeline would employ a lot of people. Paul Ryan’s budget claims (page 48) “20,000 direct jobs and 118,000 indirect jobs.” But the construction-job figure appears to be inflated by a factor of about 10, and the “indirect jobs” are just wild guess.

Probably you know that the case against the pipeline has something to do with global warming, but unless you’ve gone out of your way to study the issue, the pieces of that argument don’t come quickly to mind and aren’t as easy to assemble. It’s not actually a difficult argument, it just doesn’t have as much money behind it, so you don’t have it constantly in front of you.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Global warming is real. It’s not “controversial” or “disputed” in any genuine scientific sense. People who profit from selling fossil fuels have spent a lot of money to buy political controversy and to dispute the scientific results in the media, but that’s different from there being any real scientific controversy about whether the planet is getting hotter, whether greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing it, or whether burning fossil fuels puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Our solar system already gives us a clear example of a runaway greenhouse effect: Venus, which otherwise is the planet that most resembles Earth. The atmosphere of Venus is 96% carbon dioxide, and its surface temperature is over 800 degrees Fahrenheit — even hotter than the hottest parts of Mercury, which is much closer to the Sun. Nobody’s saying that lead is going to start boiling here on Earth, but the greenhouse effect is not some speculation out of science fiction. It’s happening on the next planet over.

There’s a time lag between putting more carbon in the atmosphere and the Earth getting hotter. It’s not like the thermostat on your furnace. (It’s more like putting on a sweater that you can’t take off.) So we can’t wait until apocalyptic things start happening and then say, “Damn. I guess we better do something about this.” If tomorrow, we stopped burning fossil fuels completely — not that anybody expects that to happen — the planet would keep getting hotter for the next several decades.

Estimating how much carbon results in how many degrees warmer how fast is where the science gets iffier. (This is where there is honest debate and more research is needed. Of course, the fossil-fuel people and their minions want to cut off this research, so they can keep exploiting the uncertainty.) In general, though, this graphic sums the best guesses we have:

So, for example, carbon already released (say, by that driving vacation you took ten years ago) is going to increase the global temperature by 1.5 degrees Centigrade, or about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. A carbon budget that would keep further warming down to 2 degrees C (3.6 F) beyond that is already starting to look impossible.

And this is the mainline scenario, not the worst case. Short of Venus, it’s hard to know what the worst case is, because we could at some point set off some feedback loop we currently know nothing about. At some point, for example, the methane frozen into the Siberian permafrost starts to evaporate into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas, so after that the hotter it gets the hotter it gets.

If we don’t want to have an ecological catastrophe, a lot of fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground. Nobody wants to hear this, and people who hear it have a way of forgetting. But take another look at that graphic: Just burning the gas, oil, and coal that corporations already list on their books will take us to a point about 12 Fahrenheit degrees warmer than we are now. That’s about the difference between Chicago and Atlanta, or Atlanta and Baghdad. The entire state of Florida would need a serious seawall, and hurricanes would hit New York or Boston every few years. I’m not sure what happens to the cornfields of Iowa or the vineyards of California, but I bet it’s not pretty.

The drill-baby-drill scenario, where we find every last hydrocarbon on the planet and burn it, is much, much worse.

If you’re going to leave any oil in the ground, the Canadian oil sands are a good choice. While not as bad as coal for generating energy in general, oil sand is a carbon-intensive way to produce liquid fuels like gasoline. There’s some debate about how much worse than ordinary crude oil it is, with estimates running from 12% worse to 22% worse. Another way to look at that: If carbon is the limiting factor on how much gasoline the world can have, producing five gallons of gas from oil sands might prevent us from producing six gallons from crude oil somewhere else.

Also, the sands are in the early stages of development; leaving them in the ground is a much easier decision now that it will be after we’ve spent a bunch of money to build a pipeline and install other infrastructure. And they’re in a rich country. (Imagine telling a poor country that its people will have to starve rather than develop known energy resources.)

What’s Plan B? Pipeline advocates want to take that argument off the table by saying that the oil sands are going to be developed anyway. At its worst, this is a defeatist the-planet-is-already-hosed-so-we-might-as-well-live-it-up-now argument.

But even ignoring that, the argument is disingenuous. The point of building the pipeline is that it makes developing the oil sands more economical. No energy deposit gets completely exploited — there’s always some oil at the bottom of the well that is recoverable, but only at a higher price. So building the pipeline clearly changes how much of the oil sand will be exploited.

And finally, the economic projections are based on a world that has no carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, which is another way of saying that we’re acting as if changing the climate had no cost.

But if the Canadian oil sands are going to be burned in their entirety (or close to it), what is going to be left in the ground? And if the answer is nothing, then what’s the plan for mitigating the damage? What’s the plan for relocating all the Bangladeshis when that country is underwater? How high does the seawall around Florida have to be? What’s the food-supply plan when Iowa turns into a desert and the ocean is too acidic to support fish?

Pipeline advocates would have you believe that the opponents are being impractical, that even if you believe in climate change (i.e., if you believe in science), this is not the place to take a stand.

So: where is the place to take a stand? And will it still be above sea level when we get there?

Peak Oil? Maybe Not

The hardest thing about living in the reality-based community is that you have to change your mind when new facts emerge. Lately, after a several-year flat period, global oil production has started growing again. The trend has reached the point where people who backed the Peak Oil Theory a few years ago are publicly changing their minds.

Here’s what George Monbiot wrote a few weeks ago in The Guardian:

Some of us made vague predictions, others were more specific. In all cases we were wrong. … Peak oil has not happened and it is unlikely to happen for a very long time. A report by the oil executive, Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun.

In Foreign Policy, Steve Levine is proclaiming “new age of fossil fuel abundance” and assessing the global winners (the U.S. and a variety of “new petrostates”) and losers (Russia, Venezuela, and OPEC).

My cynical first reaction was to check the sources for phony Exxon-funded think tanks, but that’s not what I’m finding. This looks legit to me.

Economists vs. ecologists. I view peak oil as one more chapter in the decades-long debate between ecologists (who know that in the natural world exponential growth always ends, and so worry that unlimited economic growth makes unsustainable claims on the planet’s resources) and economists (who have two unshakeable beliefs: handling scarcity is exactly what markets are designed to do, and human ingenuity is the one resource we will never run out of).

It’s an asymmetric debate: The economists are almost always right and we muddle along without catastrophe. But catastrophes being what they are, the ecologists only need to be right once. If civilization does go off a cliff someday, it won’t be much comfort to remember all the previous cliffs we avoided.

So a typical ecologist/economist debate goes like this: The ecologist says, “We only have X amount of commodity Y, and we’re using up Z of it every year. So unless we change our ways, it will all be gone in X/Z years, give or take. And if consumption keeps growing exponentially, it will all be gone even faster.” And the economist says, “Chill. In X/Z years we’ll have so many new discoveries, new technologies, and new ways of doing things that it won’t matter.”

Bad bets. The debate starting getting mass-media attention when the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth in 1972. The report didn’t actually predict the world’s oil would run out by 1992, but that was the easiest headline to write. Those headlines generated a lot of panic, and (needless to say) 1992 came and went a long time ago. Every resource-depletion debate since has included an economist crowing about The Limits to Growth.

The classic economist-beats-ecologist story is the Simon/Ehrlich bet. In 1980, economist Julian Simon made the kind of put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is challenge that probably ought to happen more often: Pick any five commodities you want, Simon offered, and I’ll bet you that in 10 years they’ll be cheaper than they are now. Paul Ehrlich took the bet, picked chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten — and lost. All five were more plentiful and cost less in 1990, and Ehrlich paid up.

Peak oil. So why did anybody think oil production would peak?

Production from individual oil fields follows a well-established pattern: It starts slow, ramps up as more wells are sunk, then eventually peaks and declines. The production peak usually happens when about half the oil is still in the ground.

In the 1950s, geologist M. King Hubbard asked the question: What if we think of the United States as one big oil field? He used the single-oil-field model to predict U.S. oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970, which it did.

Hubbard extended his model to predict a world peak in 1995, and his protege Kenneth Deffeyes later updated it to get a peak sometime around 2005-2010, which for a while seemed to be accurate. The prediction graphs looked like this:

But recent production has moved above the Hubbard curve. At least for now, the price spike of 2008 seems to have done what the economists say price spikes are supposed to do: encourage conservation and stimulate production.

So now we’re seeing world oil production graphs like this:

(Notice production flattening out from 2005 to 2009.) Meanwhile, the supply of natural gas in the U.S. is booming (thanks mainly to fracking), and the price has collapsed.

Why didn’t the prediction hold? All along, the speculative part of the Peak Oil theory was that you could extrapolate from the well-supported model of oil field depletion to the depletion of oil on the whole planet. The fact that Hubbard did so well with his U.S. peak prediction made that problem seem smaller than it was.

The economists’ argument was always that as the price went up, new fields and production techniques that hadn’t been tried (because they were too expensive) would come into play. The ecologists responded, “Why didn’t that happen in when U.S. production peaked?”

In retrospect, the answer to that question is obvious: It didn’t happen because there was somewhere else to go. When production peaks in one oil field or even one country, the easiest thing to do isn’t to invent new techniques, it’s to take your old techniques somewhere where they still work. But when there’s nowhere to go, you get creative.

Global warming. In some ways, peak oil was a convenient theory for environmentalists: If we need to shift away from oil anyway, then why not deal with global warming at the same time by developing more sustainable energy sources? (Of course, the debate could have gone the other way: If we’re running out of dirty oil, then maybe we should use even dirtier coal.)

Now, environmentalists who worry about civilization’s carbon footprint are on their own; they won’t get any help from the geologists. Monbiot observes:

There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground.

More and more it looks like that’s what needs to happen: Somebody who owns a king’s ransom of oil in the ground needs to be persuaded to leave it there. How exactly are we going to do that?

The resource we really do seem to be running out of is the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide while maintaining a biosphere productive enough to support a human population now expected to grow beyond 10 billion. That resource is not conveniently expressible as the price of a commodity, so it’s not clear exactly how markets will deal with it.

So the ecologist/economist debate will continue. And the ecologists only have to be right once.