The Long View 2003-08-07: Nifty Catastrophes

With the recent conclusion of the 2015 Paris climate conference, we can see that not much has changed in green politics either. We have an agreement to reduce carbon emissions, alongside a studied ignorance of the likelihood of many of the parties to ignore or elide their targets.

Outside of the dreams of a few deep ecologists, there seems to be no way to reduce carbon emissions that will not blow up the global economy other than nuclear power. That however, is precisely what the green movement used as a bogeyman in its infancy. Real progress could be obtained if we were willing to let that go.

Nifty Catastrophes

As I have remarked before, I have been a fan of global warming for almost 30 years. It's not that I particularly wanted it to happen, or that I had any certain information on the subject. It's just that global warming is the sort of scientific conjecture that appeals to me. Global warming is big, it's easy to understand, and it's apocalyptic in a way that does not require any immediate action on my part. The fact that the actual science is much more complicated than I had first thought does nothing to diminish the intrinsic niftiness of the idea.

That is why the current heat wave and drought in Europe have such resonance for me: the reports and commentary perfectly match my uninformed speculation as an undergraduate. Consider, for instance, this piece from the Guardian, quoting a noted climatologist:

Prof Schellnhuber said "the parching heat experienced now" could be consistent "with a worst-case scenario [of global warming] that nobody wants to come true". He warned that several months' research would be needed to analyse data from around the world before scientists could say why the heatwaves are so intense this year.

"Prof Schellnhuber said...": it even sounds like 1930s pulp science-fiction. Of course, the professor's full comments were duly nuanced and tentative. All you can say at this point is that it is reasonable to suppose that a climate change is underway; it is also reasonable to suppose that human activity is contributing to it, though that is another supposition. All we know so far is that Europe is starting to look like the Europe of about A.D. 1200.

* * *

Meanwhile, the East Coast of the US is starting to look like a warmer version of the Alaska Panhandle. In the Spring, it rained all the time. Now the sun peeks through the clouds for a few hours a day, thus providing the energy for the daily thunderstorms. Previously unusual adjectives like "sodden" have come into wide currency. Immigrants from Ireland pine for their sunny homeland.

All of this is consistent with a global-warming scenario, though it is also consistent with normal variation. In any case, since the temperature has actually been a bit below normal, global warming is not the first thing that people think of as an explanation. Maybe that is part of the explanation for the suit that the Competitive Enterprise Institute just brought to suppress two federal reports, The National Assessment on Climate Change (2000) and EPA's Climate Action Report 2002. As reports on climate change go, these are not very radical documents. Still, the CEI wants the government to repudiate them, because they provide arguments for burdensome regulation of green-house gasses. The basis of the suit is the Federal Data Quality Act, a statute new to me, which is said to require government-supported science to meet a certain standard of accuracy.

* * *

The science of global warming continues to be interesting, but the politics even more so. Whether or not climate change is man-made, and even whether it is occurring, could become irrelevant. People are already talking about the fine quality of "greenhouse vintages"; the new weather supposedly produces smaller but better grape harvests. Whatever the underlying facts, we could be looking at an emerging consensus.

There would be some unanticipated effects. The Kyoto Treaty is a hoax designed to mollify environmental pressure groups. In an emergency, it will be forgotten, not strengthened. Recent public opposition to the reality of "renewable energy" suggests that it has a limited future; to be cheap enough to use, wind and tide and even solar energy require infrastructure so enormous that it eats up the landscape. There really is no alternative to nuclear, opposition to which is the phobia on which the environmental movement was based. Here is irony for you: a serious attack on greenhouse gasses would probably require the end of Green politics.

As for worst case scenarios, some are worse than others.

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Speaking of unlikely scenarios, Arnold Schwartzenegger announced just yesterday his intention to trample California under his sandaled feet, or at least run for governor in the October recall election. Some people don't see much of a difference between these courses of action. According to Louise Krasniewicz, an anthropologist, and Michael, a professor of English and Thematic Studies at John Jay College (NYC), Arnold is not just a man, but a meme. They say on their wonderful website, Dreaming of Arnold:

Arnold’s ability to insinuate himself into any discourse or any metaphoric moment or any narrative thread is a remarkable feature of his stardom. What it suggests to us is what has come to be called and "idea virus." Arnold Schwartzenegger is the name we give to a collection of ideas which has spread in our culture over the last 30 years.

He is quite simply an easy-to-use reference point or perfect example, the prototype that is immediately understood and recognized. What he points to is a model of behavior that values persistence, force, self-determination, physical strength, power, positive action, uniqueness, and destruction.

For California voters, this means that they would be electing a moral model for a certain type of behavior that could result in unprecedented policies. Political columnist George Will described it well when he said in a recent Newsweek editorial that California needs a government that functions "despite the people," not for them or through them.

(The argument for post-democratic liberty was recently stated at length in The Future of Freedom.

One of the great strengths of the new candidate is the fact that everyone refers to him as "Arnold," to save themselves the trouble of writing "Schwartzenegger." He is not by any means a cultural conservative, by the way, and if he has a plan for solving the state's Argentinian fiscal crisis, I have not heard about it. The one thing that would probably be in his favor as governor is that the state has, probably, already hit bottom. The incumbent next year would get credit for the recovery.

As for the recall election, I am inclined to agree with those people who say that it undermines the ordinary electoral process, and without a sufficient purpose. The current governor, Gray Davis, is neither crooked nor stupid. The electorate has good reason to be sick of looking at him, but a term of office should not be like a television series, which is simply canceled if enough people change the channel.

On the other hand, there is nothing particularly wrong with the recall process itself. If a majority of the people of California decide that they want somebody else, anybody else, to be governor, there is no reason why the new governor should not be picked by what in effect is a lottery. More offices should be chosen by lot, if you ask me.

At the risk of boring you with another Jersey City story, something of the sort happened here in the early 1990s. Through the sort of temporary suspension of the laws of physics that often accompanies special elections, Republican Bret Schundler won the mayoralty by a tiny plurality in 1992, this in an almost entirely Democratic city. However, he had no trouble winning re-election in the Spring to a full term. He was popular thereafter, and often spoken of for higher office. Unfortunately, his attempt to win the governorship of New Jersey in 2001 was hampered by his inability to formulate a supply-side response to 911.

These things find their own level.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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