Wednesday, February 24, 2010

AGW versus GW: why does it matter?

Imagine for a minute that global warming isn't anthropogenic-- that it is happening, but it is happening because of... oh, I dunno, sunspots or an overabundance of squirrels or some other natural cause.

Would we just resign ourselves to dealing with the consequences, or would we try to do something about it?

Would environmentalists be lobbying for geoengineering solutions to save polar bear habitat or would they be protesting proposed geoengineering, waving signs saying "Don't Fool With Mother Nature!"

I bet they'd be waving signs.

If the consequences are the same, why does the cause matter? Would the argument be "we didn't cause the problem, so we don't have to fix it?" Or would it be the Appeal to Nature fallacy ("if it is natural, it must be good; if unnatural, bad")?

There are lots of problems we don't cause that we try hard to fix or prevent (diseases, natural disasters), so I don't think that would be the argument. I think instead there would be a double Appeal to Nature-- if global warming was natural, then it must be good. And geoengineering is unnatural, so it must be bad. So, the argument would go, we should do nothing.

I don't believe in the Appeal to Nature, and I don't think it matters whether or not global warming is "natural" or man-made. I think we should weigh the costs and benefits of global warming and compare them to the costs and benefits of possible solutions to figure out what, if anything, we should do.

And I expect that'll happen when Whole Foods decides to get rid of its Natural and Homeopathic Remedies aisle. I predict we'll have genetically engineered flying pigs before then (on second thought, that's dumb; they'll create chickens that taste like bacon).


Unknown said...

I can see why you're saying what you're saying but I don't think it makes any sense. First, you're setting up the claim that it's environmentalists who are protesting climate change and demanding we do something about global warming. I think that is way too simplistic. Then you take them down by saying that if they believed global warming was natural they'd therefore be defending it rather than lobbying for geoengineering. But I don't think they ARE lobbying for that now. Environmentalists--if we can apply such a messy big brush to a group of people that includes lots and lots of us--in general would always be against geoengineering regardless. The concern about geoengineering--highly legitimate in my opinion--is that messing with the environment on a massive scale with is fighting fire with fire--problematic! We caused climate change through a massive experiment with the complex system of the planet. And we think we can fix it with the same?? I'm highly skeptical. And environmentalists are too, regardless of whether GW is AGW.

Gavin Andresen said...

First: you're right, not everybody who is concerned about GW are environmentalists, and not all environmentalists-- I consider myself an environmentalist-- are equally worried about GW. I'm being sloppy using "environmentalists" as shorthand for "people who are very concerned about global warming."

Second: I'm not claiming that environmentalists are lobbying for GW now; I'm claiming that they are not, and part of the reason they are not is because of the Appeal to Nature logical fallacy.

RE: geoengineering: yes, the risks of unintended consequences MUST be part of the "costs" side of the equation when considering geoengineering solutions, and I agree that any irreversible geoengineering solution (like the "surround the earth by billions of little mirrors" idea) should be rejected outright.

I'm trying to make two points with this blog post:

1. That the Appeal to Nature fallacy is partly driving the public debate.

2. Emotional arguments, not logic and reason and science economics and cost/benefit analysis, will win the public debate (sigh).

Do you disagree?

MAYBE the logical, scientific arguments will win the private debate among policymakers, but I strongly doubt it.

Anonymous said...

I think the geoengineering argument is a straw man. I'd say that the mainstream "environmentalist" position with respect to any type of geoengineering project (even to mitigate GW) would be to regard it with great skepticism.

But you're missing the point on the "A" in AGW. If the climate change was being caused by (say) an overabundance of squirrel turds, then I think that you're correct that most environmentalists would reject (or regard skeptically) both plans to address the cause (massive turd cleanup operations) and plans to address the effects (billions of mirrors, or whatever).

But the key point with AGW is that it's not being caused by the squirrels, it's being caused by our own actions. And our actions are something that we can (try to) control. I think it's safe to say that most environmentalists would greatly prefer that we focus our efforts on changing the behavior that is causing GW, rather than on massive geoengineering projects to mitigate its effects. I don't see any contradiction or appeal to nature fallacy in that approach.