The Corner

Reply to Jim Manzi

I was happily out of pocket yesterday, traveling to beautiful Santa Barbara for a weekend retreat organized by David Horowitz’s Freedom Center — and a panel this morning with John Yoo and my fellow Cornerite Marc Thiessen.

Jim, Rich observes that you have responded to me, but I feel compelled to say I don’t think you’ve so much responded as addressed to (mostly) me a post in which you speak at great length without responding to what I was getting at.

I wasn’t speaking about the esoterica that unites and divides you and Dr. Richard Lindzen. My post was about the inappropriateness of your attack on Mark Levin, particularly in light of your evident respect for Lindzen, whose WSJ essay did pretty much the same thing for which you assail Levin. Your post was not “scathing.” Having dished out plenty of “scathing” myself, I’m confident that no one around here minds a good, sharp argument. Your post, instead, was unprovoked and gratuitously insulting. You’re not alone in this offence; I’ve done it myself on occasion – and to my great embarrassment when I look back on it. But let’s face it, you didn’t “call a spade a spade.” You saw what you portrayed as a spade and dropped an atom bomb of derision on it.

And over what? After one wades through your citations to yourself and Lindzen in your latest post, we finally get to the heart of the matter: You acknowledge that you and Lindzen are “in such close agreement.” Well, it turns out, Lindzen is also in close agreement with Levin. Analyzing the Manzi, Lindzen and Levin positions, one finds significant overlap. As for the differences, even accepting for argument’s sake that each scientific nuance you describe is a worthy concern rather than a nit-pick, one still has to ask whether they justify your DEFCON 5 approach to Levin, 18 months after his book was published. I don’t think they come close.

As for your dilation on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), I don’t write much about the subject. I haven’t taken the time to study it, as you have. But I have read enough to roll my eyes at most of the public debate. It is two ships passing in the night.

From the premise that AGW is undeniable, the alarmist side leaps to the extravagant conclusion that we are therefore capable of, and obliged to, do something meaningful about it. On the other hand, the skeptics (I am one) too often deny the premise — not because it’s false but because it may be frivolous. That is, relatively speaking, it may be nothing more than a drop in the ocean. I suppose it is undeniable, in absolute terms, that the drop increases the ocean’s volume. The increase, though, appears so de minimis that denying it makes sense in the greater scheme of things. Yet, the alarmists deride the skeptics over their denial as if they were denying something as basic and incontestable as that two plus two equals four. For their part, the skeptics continue denying — even if they are wrong in absolute terms — because they fear alarmists have set the table in such a way that to concede the premise is to concede the draconian remedies alarmists have in mind. The debate gets nowhere.

You say: “Put yourself in the position of a senior government leader tasked with making real decisions that affect the lives of millions. What would you do if faced with a matter of technical disagreement on such a quantitative-prediction question among experts?” I’ll tell you what I would do. I would say that, given our finite capabilities and the shortness of life, AGW may not be a problem at all, and, if it is a problem, it is not urgent enough to obsess over. Not if I am a senior government leader of a country trillions of dollars in debt who is also tasked with making real decisions about unsustainable entitlement programs, the high likelihood that states will soon default, 10 percent unemployment, crippling new taxes and inflation on the horizon, a global war against jihadists whose mass-murder attacks — and their catastrophic costs — are impossible to predict, the imminence of game-changing nuclear capability in a revolutionary jihadist state that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map and whose motto is “Death to America,” aggression from other hostile nations, a judiciary that is steadily eroding popular self-government, and a host of other actually pressing problems.

That is, I would say it’s not the government’s job to gather together “the leading subject matter experts to produce a review of the known science” and then have their product “reviewed by a standing body of leading scientists …” If the issue is truly important enough, the experts will sort that out themselves. Meanwhile, I’d conclude, get back to me when you have more certainty about the nature and extent of the problem, plus a compelling case that it’s worthy of being on my plate given all these other first-order challenges. And when you come back, make sure that you have a proposal that makes economic sense in light of the straits we’re in, and that you are ready to explain why I should not discount the problem based on (a) the rampant fraud that has been perpetrated to make the problem seem dire, and (b) the financial interests of the alarmist community in the existence of the problem.

UPDATE: I apologize for misspelling Prof. Lindzen’s name. I’ve corrected.

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