EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (including all passengers on Spaceship Earth),
So, as often happens, a weasel crawls up your tailpipe (I mean of your car, sicko). It then gets caught in the doohickey connecting the thing to thing that goes mmmm-chicka. And now your car is busted. The mechanic says it will cost $5,000 to de-weasel your diesel engine.
But you don’t have five grand lying around. So what do you do?
Obviously, you ask the mechanic how to raise $5,000. I mean, he’s an expert on how to fix your car, he must also be an expert on how to pay for it. Right?
Of course not.
My point here — or at least my first point — is that expertise doesn’t necessarily transfer over from one field to another.
A second point: Some problems cannot be undone simply by reversing the steps that led to the problem in the first place.
If someone stabs you in the chest with a metal spork (very difficult to find, by the way), you don’t necessarily want to pull it out immediately. That could cause you to bleed out. You can’t un-spill milk or un-spork your victim.
That leads me to a third, closely related, point. Just because someone can identify a problem — a weasel in the tailpipe, a spork in the chest, whatever — doesn’t mean they know the best way to fix it.
I’m no doctor, but if I see a spork handle protruding from your chest, I can give you a pretty good diagnosis of what your problem is — at least your medical problem. I may not be able to tell you why someone thought it necessary to stab you with a spork in the first place. But, beyond saying, “Dude, you should probably get that looked at” or, “I think you need to have that removed,” I’m not going to be a hell of a lot of good to you, save perhaps as a ride to the hospital.
I love those scenes in movies and TV shows where the medieval king or Roman emperor is sick with a fever or some other ailment, and the doctors come in and do a pretty good job of identifying the symptoms, if not necessarily the underlying malady. But when it comes time to prescribing treatment, they might as well be toddlers with beards. “Have his excellency eat the tails of four newts every morning before the sun clears the horizon. Then he must snort the dandruff of a Corsican beggar no older than half the King’s age minus seven. But not if the beggar is a ginger, for they are touched by the devil.”
A fourth point: Some enormous problems have no immediate solution, which means that committing massive amounts of energy and resources to fixing them now is a waste. When I was a kid, I read a science-fiction short story about humans embarking on an interstellar trip to a far-off habitable planet. The hitch: They didn’t have faster-than-light technology. I can’t remember whether their solution was to use suspended-animation chambers so that they could sleep for the several centuries it would take the ship to reach their destination or whether they planned to reproduce en route so that their descendants would colonize the planet (both standard devices in these kinds of stories). Either way, just as they were on the outskirts of the solar system and about to fully commit to the journey, an alien spacecraft appeared on their scanners or out the window (again I can’t remember). And then, suddenly, the alien ship vanished — traveling faster than light speed.
The captain’s response always stuck with me. “All right, let’s go home.”
The captain didn’t want to go home because he feared anal probing or anything like that. Rather, he realized that taking 500 years getting to some other planet was an enormous waste of time. Now that he knew it was possible to travel faster than the speed of light, there was no point to their journey. By the time they — or their great-great-great-great-great grandkids — made it to Alpha Centauri, or wherever they were heading, humans on Earth would surely have cracked the puzzle. Indeed, the fact that he knew it was possible made it infinitely more likely they’d figure out the technology because they now understood it was doable.
So what am I really getting at here? I’m trying to explain how I think about climate change.
Among the Believers
Max Boot, as part of his conservatism-renunciation tour, has been pestering me about climate change. Once a skeptic, he now proudly shouts all of the shibboleths of climate-change alarmists. He “believes” in science. And science speaks in one voice about the issue. The scientists — a monolithic bloc in his telling — have not only incontrovertibly diagnosed the problem, but they have also prescribed the only solution. And anyone who disagrees with either the diagnosis or the prescribed remedies must be doing so for one of two reasons: They are either prostitutes for the fossil-fuel industry or science-denying brainwashed ideologues.
Much like a man who thinks he can ride a wild polar bear to work because that way he can use the HOV lanes and park in the electric-car spots at his office garage, this is a stupid idea, I think, for a lot of different reasons.
First of all, while Boot’s depiction of Big Oil might be music to the ears of the green Left that still thinks the world looks like a Thomas Nast cartoon — with titans of industry portrayed as pigs at a trough or fat cats in fancy suits — that’s not the reality. Max wants a carbon tax. That’s an intellectually defensible position. But you know who else favors a carbon tax? ExxonMobil. You know what else ExxonMobil does? They spend huge amounts of money on low-carbon R&D. They just closed on the biggest wind and solar deal in the industry.
As for the notion that everyone else who disagrees with him is an ensorcelled science-hating ideologue, Boot needs to get out more. There are scads of people who are vastly more well-versed in the science than either of us who reach an array of different conclusions other than those of the chicken-little caucus. That doesn’t mean they’re all right — they can’t all be right because they have meaningfully different points of view — but it also doesn’t mean they’re all luddite ideologues. Roger Pielke, John Horgan, Judith Curry, Matt Ridley, Bjorn Lomborg, Ronald Bailey, Steve Hayward, and many others are serious people, many of whom concede the reality that man is changing the environment and climate in undesirable ways, but they get demonized by the climate-change industrial complex for poking holes in, or dissenting from, the groupthink.
From where I sit, it looks like Max, understandably dismayed by the realization that the people he relied upon to do much of his thinking for him are not who he thought they were, has simply decided to let a different group of people do his thinking for him.
But enough (already) about him. My own view of the climate change issue is that it is real. I do not think it is a hoax, though I do think there are plenty of people, institutions, and interests that use the tactics of hoaxers to hype the problem. I assume that the vast majority of them are what you might call “hoaxers in good faith”: They think the problem is grave enough that it is worth exaggerating the claims, hyping the threat, and hiding contrary evidence in an effort to rally public opinion. Others suffer from confirmation bias, immediately believing the worst-case scenarios from wildly complex — and historically unreliable — computer models without checking the math. Just last month, the authors of a widely publicized study saying the oceans were heating up much faster than thought had to issue a major correction.
The 2007 IPCC report claimed “science” proved the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035. In 2010, they had to retract the claim:
The UN’s climate science body has admitted that a claim made in its 2007 report — that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 — was unfounded.
The admission today followed a New Scientist article last week that revealed the source of the claim made in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was not peer-reviewed scientific literature — but a media interview with a scientist conducted in 1999. Several senior scientists have now said the claim was unrealistic and that the large Himalayan glaciers could not melt in a few decades.
Three Cheers for Skepticism
There are really two kinds of skepticism at work here. The first is the skepticism about the science itself, the other is skepticism towards the vast array of interests that benefit from climate hysteria, psychologically, politically, or economically. Both forms of skepticism are utterly defensible. But they shouldn’t be lumped together.
Science is skepticism. Science is questioning, testing, replicating, and re-verifying. Yes, there are some things that are “settled science” — the decay time of some isotope, the existence of gravity, the superiority of New York pizza — but what science is primarily about is unsettling settled science. All — all — of the great scientists in human history were, to one extent or another, great because they shattered or transformed the scientific consensus of their time.
The second skepticism isn’t about science, but about scientism — the effort to use the language, techniques, constructs, and imagined mindset of science to do things science cannot do. “Scientism,” writes the philosopher Edward Feser, “is the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge — that there is no rational, objective form of inquiry that is not a branch of science.” I would go slightly farther and say that scientism is a form of religious thinking that thinks it is unreligious because it rejects traditional notions of religion. Back when engineering was considered the cure-all to our problems, “social engineers” (once a positive term) argued that they should be empowered to guide human affairs because science was the only legitimate source of truth.
In this way, scientism is a kind of priestcraft — a term coined by the writer James Harington to describe the way clergy would use their divine authority (back when everyone saw God as the ultimate source of truth) to serve their own interests. Or as Bill Murray says in Ghostbusters, “Back off man, I’m a scientist.” Neil deGrasse Tyson is a leading practitioner of this secular priestcraft, arguing that we should pick up where the Jacobins left off and organize society around the rule of scientific reason as determined by people, well, like him.
There is a profound irony at work when people such as Boot insist that his opponents are driven by self-interest when they disagree with him. Is it inconceivable that, say, Al Gore — who has made hundreds of millions as a climate-change Jeremiah — has a vested interest in climate change? This isn’t to say that Gore is lying. I’m sure he believes what he’s saying. But couldn’t he be a bit like Colonel Nicholson in Bridge over the River Kwai? A man so invested in a single idea he can’t see the costs of his actions or the possibility he’s taken a good idea too far?
Ultimately, I have no fundamental problem with people who think climate-change “deniers” are suffering from groupthink of some kind. What enrages me are the scientific practitioners of priestcraft who cannot imagine the possibility that they suffer from the same human foibles. I mean, they aren’t even consistent champions of science. They cherry-pick the issues where science lends political and cultural power to the stuff that they want to do anyway. When the issue is sex and gender, many of these same people might as well start a bonfire using medical and biology textbooks as kindling. The science has been slipping away from these people when it comes to abortion, particularly late-term abortions, for decades, but you won’t find these “believers in science” changing their positions any time soon.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is pushing a “Green New Deal.” As I’ve written 7 trillion times (give or take), progressives have wanted a “new New Deal” even before the first New Deal was over. Painting an age-old progressive idol green has nothing to do with science and everything to do with marketing.
So What Would I Do?
As I suggested in the bit about the science-fiction story, I don’t think there is very much to do right now. Oh, I am very much in favor of R&D for all sorts of things. Cold fusion would be the equivalent of discovering faster-than-light travel. Personally, I am very interested in geoengineering — the science of actually fixing the problem. I am convinced the world has a low-grade fever that could get dangerously high in the future. That fever isn’t all bad by the way: E.g., it extends growing seasons and accelerates tree growth.
But if you eat bad clams and get a fever, doctors treat the fever. They may also talk to you about your diet, but they first address the illness. We don’t have anywhere near the expertise or confidence to start seeding the atmosphere with particles that would reflect more sunlight, but we could get there in the next generation or two. The funny thing is that whenever I talk to people about this sort of thing, the science worshippers suddenly freak out and say, “What if the scientists are wrong!” That’s a great question. But not only when someone proposes something you don’t like.
And I’m open to a carbon tax and things of that sort, but the thing people lose sight of is that the United States really isn’t the big problem. They want a New Deal regardless, and the green part is just a rationalization. Meanwhile, China, India, Africa, etc., very much want to be rich (or at least not poor), and they will not agree to anything that substantially deters that mission. And we should want them to get rich. Wealthy societies protect their environments as treasured luxuries, poor societies use their environments as useful resources (and don’t get me started on the violence the first New Deal inflicted on nature).
In the meantime, climate change is crowding out concern for, and resources from, all sorts of other problems that have far more immediate effects. I worry far more about eroding biodiversity, over-fishing, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, and the like than I do about climate change. Climate change contributes to some of these problems, particularly ocean acidification, but these are far more fixable right now. Elephants aren’t being wiped out by climate change. And a Green New Deal won’t save them.
Various & Sundry
I’m writing this from the verandah of my cabin on the R.M.S. Oosterdam. It’s been another lovely and fun National Review cruise with a bunch of great people. If you’re wondering why I didn’t even mention Donald Trump in this “news”letter, it is because I am unbelievably exhausted with the topic (also, news seems to be moving fast on the Trump front, and I’m not too dialed into what’s happening). There has been all manner of fruitful, fiery, yet always friendly conversations about the man and the times, and I just couldn’t muster anything more on the subject. Also, I don’t have much to add to what I wrote last week.
Canine Update: The night before I left for the cruise, my wife and I were having dinner in front of the TV to watch the final episode of this season of Man in the High Castle, when Pippa came up to request a piece of the Fair Jessica’s steak. Normally, in these times, Pippa deploys her most powerful weapon: her puppy eyes. But there was a problem: One of them seemed to be looking off in the wrong direction. Given that she was abnormally tired to begin with, we thought she might have had a seizure or some kind of stroke or something. So, I rushed her to the money depository that operates as a veterinary hospital. Zoë was enraged that I was taking Pippa at dog-walking hour without her. The Dingo was clearly convinced that we were going to some canine amusement park, where instead of whack-a-mole, you get to play crunch-a-mole. Anyway, Pippa was very excited for a car ride at first but was more terrified than I’ve ever seen her when we got to the vet. She ran to the back of the beat-up Honda Element that is our dog car and curled into a quivering ball. In the waiting room, she kept jumping up and crawling over me like there must be some hidden bunker in my body that she could hide in. It turns out that she probably had an infection or maybe an ulcer than causes Horton’s syndrome, which can make an eye go droopy. She’s in no discomfort as far as we can tell, and she should be fine, but it was a bit scary. I really want to express my appreciation to everyone on Twitter who showed their concern for the girl.
I don’t know whether readers actually follow the links to the doggo pictures, but if you do, I’m sorry I can’t do it this week. Twitter is not loading for me right now.
I will be on Meet the Press on Sunday.
And now, the weird stuff.