Facts Trump Krugman’s Wager

Paul Krugman wrote an excellent column about the ridiculous off-shore drilling controversy. He writes:

“If a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.”

So Krugman is both confronting the ineptitude of politics-as-usual in the face of looming environmental crisis and showing up John McCain for the tool that he is. These are important truths that should be written about more often.

However, there is some misleading rhetoric in Krugman’s column that blurs the issue quite a bit. Krugman writes:

Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.

We shouldn’t be debating about something that has only a 5% percent chance of happening. We should focus on what is and most certainly will happen i.e. a global temperature rise of several degrees. It’s pretty obvious that a 10 degree increase would be catastrophic but considering that it took only a few degrees (Celsius) to shift us out of the last ice age, we need to “get real” as it were.

Also, since I was subjected to Catholic schooling for many years, I have to take issue with Krugman’s rhetorical variation on Pascal’s wager:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Pascal’s wager is a logical trick which implies that you should believe in God even in the absence of empirical evidence. Krugman’s version goes like this: If global warming exists and you believe in it, you will go to Heaven. If global warming doesn’t exist and you believe in it, nothing will happen. If global warming does exist and you don’t believe in it, you will go to Hell! Hence, you better believe.

But global warming and the accompanying convergence of environmental crises is not a myth, not an object of religious devotion. Rather it is a scientific fact based on rigorously reviewed empirical evidence.

Here are some facts to think about, fellow Krugman readers:

  • Every living system is in decline, and that decline is accelerating
  • 70% of biologists view the present era as part of a mass extinction event, possibly one of the fastest ever, according to a 1998 survey by the American Museum of Natural History.
  • The global economic system is a subsystem of the biosphere — It would cost an estimated 35 trillion dollars a year to do what nature is doing for us for nothing (thanks David Suzuki)
  • We have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 30 to 35% — an astonishing figure
  • 95% of old growth forests in the US are gone and will not grow back
  • In the past 50 years we have observed a 50% increase speed and duration of hurricanes.
  • In the past 50 years we have observed the destruction of 90 percent of the big fish in the sea
  • There will be 150 million environmental refugees by mid-century according to UN estimates

Government is very responsive to the needs of the rich and powerful, hence there is a vested interest in keeping these facts under wraps.


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