Cracks in the Slate II

More dreck on climate change from Slate. Gregg Easterbrook has penned a critique of Thomas Friedman’s latest book that is little more than a catalog of fallacious arguments.

Poisoning the well? Check:

Recently Friedman, in his influential New York Times column, has climbed aboard the green-energy bandwagon. The cynical view is that his embrace of max-PC alarums about global warming is Friedman’s bid to make everyone forget he pounded the table in favor of an American invasion of Iraq.

Appeal to ridicule? Check:

But Friedman, Al Gore, James Hansen of NASA, and others present climate change as some kind of super-ultra emergency.

Lomborgian false dilemma? Check:

Global warming is a problem, one that must be managed via greenhouse-gas restrictions and a weaning away from fossil fuels. But in a world of poverty, disease, dictatorships, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, lack of girls’ education, and more than 1 billion people without cleaning drinking water or electricity—climate change barely makes the Problem Top 10.

Tu quoque? Check:

Friedman counsels, “[P]ersonally lead as environmentally sustainable a life as you can” but himself lives in a 11,400-square-foot mansion, whose carbon footprint may be visible from orbit.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam? Check:

the knowledge necessary to create an affordable clean-energy economy does not yet exist.

His concluding paragraph is a doozy:

Friedman concludes Hot, Flat, and Crowded by proclaiming greenhouse damage could cause humanity to be “just one more endangered species.” Better to consult history on this topic. Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem. Smog and acid rain, the two previous serious air-pollution problems, once were viewed as emergency threats. Then federal standards were imposed, and inventions and new business models were devised; now smog and acid rain are way down in the United States and declining in much of the rest of the world. And no international treaty governs smog or acid rain! Nations have adopted smog and acid-rain curbs because it is in their self-interest to do so. The same dynamic will take hold for climate change, not long after the United States finally imposes greenhouse-gas rules. Unquestionably the future is flat and crowded. Hot? Maybe not.

The amount of inanity packed into those sentences is astounding (bare assertion, ignoratio elenchi, biased sample, etc.). Breaking them out reveals just how absurd they are:

Better to consult history on this topic.

A seemingly reasonable proposition. After all, we have a wealth of paleontological and paleoclimatic data to help us put unchecked emissions growth into perspective in terms of impact on species. But that isn’t the kind of “history” that Easterbrook is interested in at all. Rather, he bizarrely opts to compare the apple of climate change to the oranges of acid rain and smog, under the almost charmingly simplistic justification that they’re all “air pollution”:

Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem. Smog and acid rain, the two previous serious air-pollution problems, once were viewed as emergency threats.

The problems with such a comparison should be self-evident. First, did anyone credulously claim that either smog or acid rain would be as sweeping in severity or scope as climate change, let alone threats to humanity as a species? That certainly isn’t my recollection, and a cursory survey of the literature likewise seems to fail to support that notion. But perhaps more relevantly, smog and acid rain are generally (although not entirely) treated as “local” pollution issues. A country that chooses to produce sulfate and particulate pollution does so (at least from its perspective) primarily at the expense of its “own” inhabitants and environment, providing incentive for individual nations to take action absent a global agreement. The well-mixed nature of greenhouse gases renders such a comparison moot from the start. Tellingly, Easterbrook ignores the more obvious and fitting corollary to the current situation, ozone depletion. Why? Then he couldn’t proclaim that the emissions problem would solve itself without a binding global agreement:

Then federal standards were imposed, and inventions and new business models were devised; now smog and acid rain are way down in the United States and declining in much of the rest of the world. And no international treaty governs smog or acid rain! Nations have adopted smog and acid-rain curbs because it is in their self-interest to do so. The same dynamic will take hold for climate change, not long after the United States finally imposes greenhouse-gas rules.

This is so purely because Easterbrook assures us it is so. He offers no explanation for why emerging economies such as India and China would adopt emissions restrictions absent a globally-binding agreement that would offer incentives for their participation. They will assume the burden of regulation voluntarily despite potentially negative economic consequences and absent any immediate and significant benefits. By this rationale, all it would take to end the specter of thermonuclear war would be for the United States to scrap its own arsenal. Surely every other nation would voluntarily follow suit- it’s in their own best interests after all!

Easterbrook finishes strangely by seemingly casting doubt that there will be future warming at all:

Unquestionably the future is flat and crowded. Hot? Maybe not.

I can only assume that this is a rhetorical flourish meant to further dismiss Friedman’s book, rather than denial that we have already committed ourselves to further warming even if we stabilize emissions. However, given the quality of Easterbrook’s arguments, I don’t feel terribly safe in making the assumption.

Perhaps what bothers me the most about this review is the condescending tone. Easterbrook has a nasty little habit of calling the public scientifically illiterate while being if not illiterate, severely developmentally-challenged himself. This coupled with his unwarranted and baseless equation of the threat posed by and solution to climate change to previous “environmental emergencies” is simply too much. I’m not a fan of Thomas Friedman by any stretch of the imagination, but Easterbrook’s criticisms are weak sauce.

[Edited to add:]

In perhaps his most galling “error”, Easterbrook dismisses Dr. Heidi Cullen as “an anchorwoman for the Weather Channel”. From Cullen’s bio:

Before joining The Weather Channel, Dr. Cullen was a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. She received a bachelor’s degree in engineering/operations research from Columbia University in New York City and went on to receive a doctorate in climatology and ocean-atmosphere dynamics at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. Her dissertation focused on understanding the impacts and dynamics of the North Atlantic Oscillation, an important climate influence. As a post-doc, she received a NOAA Climate & Global Change Fellowship and spent two years working at the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction.

Easterbrook could learn a thing or two about climate change from that particular “anchorwoman”.

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