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The environmentalists were correct. And intellectuals need to be more responsible.
“Imagine that you’re testing medications on human subjects—there’s a whole formal process that you have to go through, since it’s an extraordinarily serious situation even when one person might die during your experiment. But how serious is the responsibility when intellectuals give commentary about global heating and nuclear weapons, which means that we’re talking about billions of lives instead of one life? The more you raise the ethical stakes, the less maturity and gravity and responsibility there is.”
There’s a mind-bogglingly simple and obvious point that should be all over the media, namely that intellectuals who deal with existential issues have a very solemn and very grave and very sober responsibility—I don’t think that this point gets nearly the attention that it ought to get.
Intellectuals are permitted to give reckless commentary about existential issues—there’s no backlash like there would be if someone were being reckless on a far smaller scale.
Imagine that you’re testing medications on human subjects—there’s a whole formal process that you have to go through, since it’s an extraordinarily serious situation even when one person might die during your experiment. But how serious is the responsibility when intellectuals give commentary about global heating and nuclear weapons, which means that we’re talking about billions of lives instead of one life? The more you raise the ethical stakes, the less maturity and gravity and responsibility there is.
The Environmentalists Were Correct
I remember when 3°C was supposed to be thinkable on the global-heating front. Those days seem like an eternity ago—just look at the following video from The Economist:
The environmentalists were correct—the people who were screaming from the rooftops turned out to be right, whereas the people who were downplaying this turned out to be reckless and irresponsible and culpable.
We’re only at 1.2°C—there are daily terrifying headlines. Take a look at the 12 August 2022 New York Times piece about the new apocalyptic threat to California—at least there’s consciousness about this threat. Or take a look at the 8 August 2022 Guardian piece about new research showing that pathogens are getting worse as global heating proceeds—that’s yet another apocalyptic amplification.
There’s a harrowing 18 August 2022 CNN piece about global heating’s effects on the global economy—the piece says that it’s “increasingly evident how quickly costs can pile up” as global heating takes its economic toll on the US and Europe and China. The piece says that Chinese factories were “ordered shut for six days to conserve power”, that ships “carrying coal and chemicals are struggling to make their usual trips along Germany’s Rhine river”, and that “people living on America’s West Coast have been asked to use less electricity as temperatures soar”—there will be significant economic damage as a result of these things.
The piece says that we’re seeing a worldwide phenomenon where “rivers that support global growth—the Yangtze, the Danube and the Colorado—are drying up, impeding the movement of goods, messing with irrigation systems and making it harder for power plants and factories to stay cool”. And the piece says that “scorching heat is hampering transportation networks, straining power supply and hurting worker productivity”.
A Profound and Sick Bias
Our intellectual culture has a profound and sick bias—we perceive centrism as objectivity. This profound and sick bias means that certain decisions are completely invisible to us—we view it as a decision to say “global heating”, but we don’t view it as a decision to say “climate change”. A centrist framing isn’t perceptible as a decision—only departures from centrism are perceptible as decisions.
Centrism is actually an ideology; centrist framings are actually decisions; centrism can actually be incorrect; and centrism can actually be dangerous. And the ideology of centrism actually has an enormous amount to answer for when it comes to the current tragedy that’s unfolding around us.
Noam Chomsky absolutely hits the nail on the head in the following remarks:
Chomsky is 100% correct—the question is “What if you’re wrong?”. And environmentalists have very little burden on that front—there’s not much cost to society if we listen to the environmentalists and the environmentalists are wrong.
But what if we listen to the centrists and the centrists are wrong? Then the whole human species is down the drain—that’s recklessness on an obscene scale, but “recklessness” is a polite word for it.
So centrists should ask themselves “What if you’re wrong?”. And environmentalists should ask themselves “What if you’re wrong?”. And everyone should remember that our whole fate is at stake.
One can argue that Nordhaus’s work has harmed climate action—Nordhaus concluded that 3°C would be a good idea in terms of optimizing economic growth.
Nordhaus’s work applies a discounting to future global-heating damages—the idea is that we shouldn’t worry as much about what we’re imposing on future generations, since future generations will have better technology and more wealth and more ability to cope. How much money should the world invest annually in order to avoid global-heating damages that we estimate will have reached $2 trillion per year in 2120? The answer is that we should invest a great deal, but there’s much less urgency if you apply a discounting—of 4% or 5%—that compounds annually and reduces the $2 trillion all the way down to $15 billion or $40 billion.
Scientists and economists have criticized Nordhaus’s work in a “categorical” manner—one can criticize Nordhaus’s work on the grounds that the work (1) assumes gradual linear change, (2) ignores the reality that crossing certain thresholds will trigger natural accelerations, and (3) doesn’t adequately allow for low-probability catastrophic impacts.
According to Joseph Stiglitz, Nordhaus’s models don’t adequately account for extreme events like hurricanes and fires and droughts.
Nordhaus’s models assume that society will get richer over time as the global-heating impacts get worse, but there’s an alternative analysis that looks at how global heating will actually make us poorer over time as the global-heating impacts get worse—dozens of studies show how global heating is already harming growth rates and productivity.
Johan Rockström says that Nordhaus’s work “‘is simply not aligned with climate science’”.
Stiglitz says that Nordhaus’s work “‘is so badly flawed that it shouldn’t be taken seriously’”, that Nordhaus’s work is “‘dangerous because we don’t have another planet we can go to if we mess this up’”, and that the “‘message he’s been conveying is foolhardy’”.
Michael E. Mann says that Nordhaus’s “‘heavy social discounting inappropriately down-weights devastating impacts that fall disproportionately on future generations, arguably violating basic ethical considerations’”.
Nordhaus recently evaluated “the risks associated with the melting of the Greenland ice sheet”, but “scientists dismissed his peer-reviewed study”.
Mann says that the evaluation “‘is a perfect example of where Nordhaus’ approach breaks down in the real world’”—Mann says that no “‘amount of wealth can rebuild an ice sheet’”, that “‘the dislocation of hundreds of millions of people will lead to massive unrest and conflict’”, and that it’s “‘impossible to accurately put a price tag on that’” unrest and conflict.