“Global Warming” Is A Political Issue
June 1, 2011 8 Comments
It seems obvious and redundant to state that such a hot-button issue as “global warming” is a political issue, but it’s worth reminding oneself how few people actually take that fact to heart. If you listen to one side of the debate, “global warming” is purely a scientific question. By this reckoning, once you get all The Scientists to state their Consensus on the subject, you’re done, there’s nothing left to discuss. The other side, flummoxed, is then left scrambling to dispute or cast doubt on or debunk The Scientists, tacitly conceding the (incorrect) notion that this is purely a scientific issue. But political issues are not purely scientific issues.
And make no mistake, “global warming” – meaning, the theory that human greenhouse gas emissions will make the Earth measurably warmer, and that something needs to be collectively done about that – is a political issue.
Here for reference is my framework for thinking about “global warming”. Spurred by an email exchange with a friend, I feel the urge to expand on Question 4 of that post: Will this future [=our future climate, if we don't consciously address GW] weather be bad?
Whether the earth has gotten warmer? That’s a scientific question – which is to say, it is in principle answerable by scientific means (it doesn’t mean we necessarily know that answer).
Whether it will continue to get warmer if X, Y, and Z aren’t or are done? That’s a scientific question.
What the tangible effects of getting warmer will be on this, that, and the other thing? Scientific questions.
Whether those effects, overall, would be “bad”: not a scientific question.
What is “bad” for some is not as bad, or even good, for others. More deeply, “bad” implies values. Values can conflict. And value conflicts are not resolvable by science.
A person in Minnesota, for example, might not mind a little global warming. They might reckon it wouldn’t be as bad for them, and they’re probably right about that. You might think they’re wrong, or being short-sighted, or whatever, but they not you are best positioned to determine what they value, and on what time horizon. Notice that such a value judgment is not answerable by scientific means. That is, no Scientists can, using Science, prove the Minnesotan “wrong” to place little value preventing GW. It’s just not that kind of issue. Instead, the way we resolve such issues is via politics, and at the ballot box.
Thus, when voters go to the polls and vote against anti-GW policies or politicians who espouse them, they are expressing a perfectly valid value judgment, and their opinions ought to be weighted equally with those who favor anti-GW policies. There is no “scientific” basis for calling them wrong, or dumb. Because this is a political issue not a scientific one.
But, the GW believer retorts, New Orleans will be underwater in like 200 years! That’s terrible! And indeed it would be. But it would be more terrible for 2211 New Orleanians than for 2011 Minnesotans. How much should 2011 Minnesotans be forced to pay to possibly prevent this contingency that future New Orleanians, we presume on the assumption that New Orleans is still there at that time, would not like? Whatever the answer is, it is (a) not infinite and (b) not a Scientific answer. Science can inform the answer but ultimately must remain silent on the political issue.
One might say “but we can count the cost and show that even to the Minnesotan the cost of GW is X, whereas the cost of prevention is only Y”. Such methods admirably attempt to convert this sort of question into something answerable by Science (or at least Economics). However, any reckoning of the “cost” to this or that person of something like Global Warming inevitably involves assigning weights, costs, penalties, or other sorts of scores to different climate outcomes, at different times, using different discount factors. Some of the “costs” one might count – the cost of rebuilding a building, say – could conceivably be boiled down to something more or less objective. But not all of them can be, in any complete sense, so ultimately you have to make up some point values to create your “cost function”. And once you’ve done that, your “cost function” inevitably embodies a set of value judgments, if only implicitly. Such methods don’t turn political questions into scientific ones – how could they? All they do is hide the political component inside mathematical formulas.
When used by ideologues to quash debate, such appeals to Science represent attempts to deny that “global warming” is a political issue. “Science” becomes merely a tool invoked to deny that honest, genuine, informed disagreement on the subject can possibly exist. This sort of intellectual bullying has no place in a free, democratic society.
To see this however requires appreciating – truly understanding – that “global warming” is a political issue. If you understood the above, then you understand that very few people do.