The Corner

Friedman Tackles Climategate

I have a piece for the magazine due by Friday (on Richard Ely! Who’s he? Wait for it.), so I’m going to be posting lightly today. But everyone keeps sending me Tom Friedman’s column. This is not an omnibus response, merely a few thoughts.

First, as a couple readers noted, Friedman talks about Climategate as if it’s something everyone knows about. I think he’s probably right. But shouldn’t that say something to the news “gatekeepers”? If a top columnist at the Times can talk about a controversy without first having to explain it to the reader, then maybe it counts as “news.”

Second, it’s a bit hard to take Friedman seriously on the subject since he’s already made it clear he doesn’t care if it’s a hoax.

Third, I don’t mind the “precautionary principle” argument he’s making as much as some readers do. But he steals quite a few bases in the course of making his case. That we are in a general warming trend isn’t hotly disputed by the so-called “deniers” (still a terrible bad-faith word which tells a lot about the people who use it). The question is whether it’s outside normal climate variation. We’ve only had moderately reliable measuring devices for a little while and they might have come on line right at the beginning of a mostly natural warming uptick. We don’t know. When we hear that this is the warmest decade “on record” people leave out the reliable record is very short (they also leave out other things).

Then they respond, “Oh, no, the record goes back a thousand years.” And cue the Climategate debate. That thousand-year claim is now officially unreliable. That doesn’t mean global warming is untrue — as Jim Manzi has argued many times, we do know that the carbon molecule has certain properties and it is a plausible hypothesis that it is contributing to global warming and (more troubling to me) the acidification of the oceans. But it is still just a hypothesis. The effect is much better understood than the cause.

Fourth, Friedman is still making the even-if-it’s-a-hoax-it’s-great argument. He writes:

If we prepare for climate change by building a clean-power economy, but climate change turns out to be a hoax, what would be the result? Well, during a transition period, we would have higher energy prices. But gradually we would be driving battery-powered electric cars and powering more and more of our homes and factories with wind, solar, nuclear and second-generation biofuels. We would be much less dependent on oil dictators who have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs; our trade deficit would improve; the dollar would strengthen; and the air we breathe would be cleaner. In short, as a country, we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent.

Again, this is a signal that Friedman — like so many others — really doesn’t much care if the science is right or wrong. Because he thinks global warming is a useful Sorellian myth to drive the organization of our society and political economy in directions he favors. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, it just means his judgment is not very trustworthy. For Friedman, it’s worth doing these things no matter what. For reasonable skeptics, if global warming is either untrue or not a big deal, then  these things might be worth doing either gradually through normal market forces and/or careful reform, or not at all. But in a near-blind panic, spending trillions and exporting much of our economy wholesale to China and India for the sake of a benign hoax is absurd. It’s doubly absurd when we would be doing it for naught, since the developing world will never, ever, follow our lead if it means sacrificing development, and even if all this stuff comes online without much trouble, it will still only reduce temperatures by a teeny-weeny amount.

Last, at the bottom of Friedman’s column it says “Maureen Dowd is off today.” Question: Why don’t they put that disclaimer under Maureen Dowd’s column where it belongs?


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