Recently a friend, a father of two boys, complained that President Obama is paying more attention to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) than to defeating ISIS.
I honestly don’t understand this sentiment. Sure, it’s fine to attack Obama’s foreign policy on a variety of grounds, but suggesting that his focus on AGW instead of ISIS is somehow wrong doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially for parents.
ISIS does not represent an
existential threat to the United States, and I strongly suspect that in
ten years it will be little more than a bitter memory. On the other
hand, if the President is right about AGW, it is your children and
grandchildren who will pay for our failure to do something about it now
(not my kids, I don’t have any).
The President is responding to the broad scientific consensus on AGW. There are some dissenters, but for the most part the vast majority of climate and other scientists agree on AGW. It is possible they are wrong, but what if they are right? What will you say to your grandchildren, living in a world of crazy weather and rising tides and diminished glaciers — of famine and climate-related unrest and conflict — when they ask why your generation didn’t do more to stop AGW? “Oh, we were much more concerned about a band of guerrillas in the Middle East.” “What band of guerrillas, grandpa?”
I don’t have to worry because
I never have to consider having such a conversation with my
grandchildren. I can go on being irresponsible with my middle finger
raised high in the direction of your kids and their kids.
There is a central irony to the AGW “debate’ (which is actually more like people shouting over each other across a table). I honestly don’t know who is right, I don’t claim to be scientifically competent enough to evaluate the data on my own, and it seems to me the discussion is too political to pretend to be objective anymore anyway. But in America the people most opposed to any action to stop or reverse AGW are conservatives, and mostly conservative Christians. And the most common argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, such people make for why an atheist like me should pray to god even if he doesn’t believe in an afterlife is, “What if we’re right?”
What if the AGW proponents are right? If they are right and we don’t act, your kids and your grandkids are fucked. If they are wrong and we act against AGW we will have a little slower economic growth and cleaner air. When looking at these trade-offs, it’s really hard (for me) to get all worked up against the AGW hippies.
And I don’t even have any kids.
Another friend (father of two girls) asks:
What if they aren’t right?
We’ll have slower growth and cleaner air.
How many trillions will have been spent that could have helped many other things. Hardly a small economic blip.
We aren’t talking about trillions. We’re talking about making it marginally more expensive to unlock C02 into the atmosphere. Maybe billions. And you are suggesting there are opportunity costs. With regard to private spending, I don’t see much,* especially since the additional artificial costs imposed for releasing CO2 into the atmosphere would change behaviors in largely positive ways (since I am not a shareholder of, for example, ExxonMobil, I can say that; YMMV).
If the spending you are referring to is government spending, there aren’t really any opportunity costs, because the money you save here will simply be squandered stupidly in some way over there. In any case, investment to reduce greenhouse gases should be beneficial in the long run because they are likely to make renewable energy sources more viable. For one reason or another, humanity will have to wean itself from fossil fuels someday.
There’s an economic concept, I don’t know what it’s called, something about the fallacy of risk. It’s not just a matter of investing to reduce this or that risk, you also have to consider the nature of the risks. Like, say you need to walk across a narrow beam to get from one place to another. If there is a three foot drop below the beam, you think nothing of walking across. But if there’s a hundred foot drop, you might decide not to make the crossing at all. But nothing else has changed: same beam, same objective; only the relative impact of the outcomes, the gravity of the risks being assumed, has changed.
AGW, if it’s real, is potentially one of the biggest problems facing humanity, maybe the biggest.
But I don’t know the answers, nor, honestly, do I really care. Not at all. I have no skin in this game: after all, I have no children. I simply cannot understand the intransigence, on this point, of people who do have children.
* In the developed world. The developing world could potentially see their economic growth stunted, and that would indeed be bad for them. But only marginally bad, not any kind of an existential threat (as climate change, which will hurt the developing world far more than it does us, threatens to be).