Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A pseudointellectual "beard" for climate folly





Andrew Sullivan, whose taste in climate pundits remains howlingly bad, highlights an online "philosopher's" pretentious right-wing drivel:
The moralisation approach undermines itself since it frames climate change narrowly in terms of righteousness. Inevitably deliberation about action gets bogged down in an interminable blame-game about what justice requires - who had their industrial revolution first, etc. Furthermore, the moral duties of different actors do not all point the same way: poor country governments have a clear and over-riding moral duty to help their citizens achieve the high quality of life which the West takes for granted, and which is inevitably energy (carbon) intensive. And then there is the practical economics: the world still has lots of coal, especially in the poor world, that can produce electricity at 3c per kwh (which renewables cannot possibly compete with without radical technological breakthroughs, even with the strongest moral rhetoric). No comprehensive global political solution to greenhouse gases is possible. We need to go back and think again.
Sullivan hat tips to "The Philosopher's Beard" under the heading "The Hazardous Moralization Of Climate Change." The link leads you to "The Philosopher's Beard: Mini-essays in philosophy, politics, and economics" and "Ethics and Global Climate Change." Via the latter, the author gives us a memorable demonstration of how to make a pseudointellectual argument:
   
1. Use academic-sounding terms which appear specific and objective, which are in fact vague, subjective, and implicitly derogatory.
The global climate change debate has a lopsided empirical basis - in the economy of nature but not political economy - and this has contributed to a peculiar moralising trajectory.
You would think, from the fact that the central point of the whole essay is to make the case against "moralizing" climate change, that what "moralizing" the debate means would be clearly defined. It never is. If you search the essay for clues, what you get back is a right-winger's cardboard stereotype of a loony green:
" the debate has induced a kind of millennarian meltdown in which otherwise sensible people have lost all sense of proportion and hope"
" Morality concerns strict but simple universal rules that everyone should follow without regard to personal situations or consequences - on the model of laws [When your behavior harms me or vice versa, we typically make laws about that behavior. As a general rule, laws are made "on the model of laws."] On this model, one's carbon footprint is a crime (against the planet presumably) [says who?] which one should feel guilty about and strive to mitigate. As of course are other people's carbon emissions: they deserve to be shamed or otherwise forced into submission by the righteous ones."
" The moralisation approach undermines itself since it frames climate change narrowly in terms of righteousness. Inevitably deliberation about action gets bogged down in an interminable blame-game about what justice requires - who had their industrial revolution first, etc."
" The moralisation approach contrasts with a fuller ethical thinking in which values are considered and debated explicitly and openly. Righteousness simplifies but it doesn't try to understand."
What the author is attempting to pass off as an objective characteristic of the "climate debate" proves to be just standard climate denier ad hominem – greens are humorless scolds, socialist-secular anticolonialist navel-gazers, self-righteous Chicken Littles undergoing a "millennarian meltdown" in which they "have lost all sense of proportion and hope."
    
He gives no evidence for this slander, merely repeating it in various forms for most of the post. That, too, is characteristic of the pseudointellectual argument. When a straightforward torch-waving rabble-rouser like me makes an assertion about something or someone I don't care for, I have to support it with examples, usually providing a quote or two to illustrate what I mean. By couching his conventional right-wing op-ed in terms of "philosophy" the author evades any question of evidence or proof.

2. Lard up the verbiage.
The global climate change debate has a lopsided empirical basis - in the economy of nature but not political economy - and this has contributed to a peculiar moralising trajectory.
In other words, the science of climate change is solid and conclusive. Do you really need to torture that thought into this "global climate change debate has a lopsided empirical basis"? The case for action is not (he asserts) as strong – which becomes " in the economy of nature but not political economy."
     
3. Offer analysis, but deliver politics. 

The Beard gives us one fact – the population of the earth – and then sets out on what is ostensiby a description of the situation, but which is in fact an almost unrecognizable right-wing fantasy world:
In trying to tackle climate change by directly dealing with the causal mechanism of CO2 levels we face an enormous collective action problem - how to persuade 6.7 billion people to adopt the new morality of carbon rationing (and prevent free-riding). Everyone but the most delusional accepts that this is impossible without enormous government coercion (which explains many climate change warriors' antipathy to democratic principles on this point - easier to persuade 200 governments than all those people). However even the government coercion approach fails - see the failures of every inter-governmental treaty, from Kyoto to Copenhagen - and the reasons are obvious.
Notice how easily we slip into the conventional internet libertarian's assumptions about the world. Government action has become "enormous government coercion" (is a carbon tax more coercive than a property tax or a sales tax, or does he believe all taxation and regulation to be "enormous government coercion"? He doesn't say, but one suspects.) The people or the right side of that "lopsided empirical basis" have become "climate change warriors" – because while denying climate change "is just silly" proposing that we act on what we know is the moral equivalent of making war on our fellow citizens. And then we have this gem of tortured logic: "which explains many climate change warriors' antipathy to democratic principles on this point - easier to persuade 200 governments than all those people."
   
Lobbying the government to act is now undemocratic. International treaties are undemocratic, too. (We are allowed to persuade people individually, provided we don't make them feel bad by "moralising" the issue.) One wonders how democracy ever recovered from treaties that banned ozone-depleting chemicals, or the use of chemical and biological weapons, or child labor, or those that created trade agreements.
    
This is all stuff that would have readers at mises.org nodding along, but everybody else should be confused and startled by a definition of democratic principles that precludes trying to convince your fellow citizens to agree to collective actions for the benefit of all.

4. Include lots of straw men.

I lost count at ten or so. Here's a particularly egregious example:
No-one emits carbon deliberately 'for fun', but rather we engage in activities which are more or less valuable to us - such as flying across the Atlantic to visit grandparents - which happen to emit carbon as a byproduct. To ignore the value of these human activities and see them instead as moral crimes is to do a violence to the very humanness of the lives (including those of future generations) that we are supposed to be so concerned about preserving.
Who "ignore[s] the value of these human activities"? In what way does saying an action has a consequence, and its utility must be evaluated in light of that, imply that the activity has no value? It does not. He is conjuring up an absurd parody of an eco-warrior scold, while ignoring the very simple and pragmatic point that we have to weigh the unintended consequences of our actions in deciding what we will do.

We should be grateful "Beard" wasn't around when doctors discovered that the cholera epidemics of London were spreading via polluted water. Imagine the screed:
No-one uses water pumps "for fun," but rather we engage in activities which are more or less valuable to us - such as cooking dinner or washing clothes - which happen to spread disease as a byproduct. To ignore the value of these human activities and see them instead as moral crimes is to do a violence to the very humanness of the lives (including those of future generations) that we are supposed to be so concerned about preserving.
The whole exercise is so transparent, and the underlying political spin so obvious, that one wonder if the title of the blog "The Philosopher's Beard" carries a hidden meaning: if the author, aware that his proclivities for hard, grinding, right-winger-on-libertarian action are less than comfortable to a mainstream audience, and has chosen to equip his online persona accordingly with a fictitious air of academic enquiry – "The Philosopher's Beard" being just that – a "beard" of airy intellectualism for a closeted right-wing partisan.




4 comments:

  1. Great stuff. The cholera metaphor is particularly sharp. I've added a link to this at the bottom of my original post.

    Though I must slightly demur about my exact right-wing libertarian credentials, since I do also argue that rich countries should lead the way in combating climate change through carbon-pricing, regulation, and research, and also provide poorer countries with aid for climate adaptation.

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  2. Though I must slightly demur about my exact right-wing libertarian credentials, since I do also argue that rich countries should lead the way in combating climate change through carbon-pricing, regulation, and research, and also provide poorer countries with aid for climate adaptation.

    How uncharitable of you to rob me of my own straw man with such a reasonable and generous response.

    But I don't understand what you are referring to as regards "enormous government coercion" if not carbon pricing, regulation, and research.

    I don't think anyone is proposing some sort of carbon-emission Checka to roam the night making warrantless arrests.

    I am a big supporter of a carbon tax precisely because it does not force people to give up any activity -- only to pay more, meaning, hopefully, that things people really value (burning gas is a hospital's emergency generators, or that visit to grandma) would continue, while activities that add little value (such as burning coal when an alternative source of power is available and only slightly more expensive) would become unprofitable and cease.

    As to rich countries leading the way, our first task is to catch up. India taxes every ton of coal burned, despite being a developing country as well as a democracy (http://theidiottracker.blogspot.com/2011/10/carbon-price-passes-in-australia.html) . South Korea is close, China is talking carbon tax (Ibid).

    Thanks for your response.

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  3. Cheers. I should have been clearer about what I meant by "enormous government coercion". What I had in mind were economy freezing laws driven directly and solely by the science of carbon change e.g. with strict carbon rationing on individuals (reminiscent of China's 1 child policy).

    Not very likely to come about, of course, but I originally wrote the post after attending an academic conference on the ethics of climate change in which exactly that was proposed (and generally accepted) as the fairest best way to proceed. It was also noted to be impossible without first setting up a world government. Since this was also impossible the conference ended in a general consensus of righteous despair that I thought was rather silly.

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  4. Not very likely to come about, of course, but I originally wrote the post after attending an academic conference on the ethics of climate change in which exactly that was proposed (and generally accepted) as the fairest best way to proceed. It was also noted to be impossible without first setting up a world government. Since this was also impossible the conference ended in a general consensus of righteous despair that I thought was rather silly.

    Wow, that does sound absurd. And I've seen enough academics on their high horses to recognize the portrait.

    I don't think very many people buy into that really academic hard-leftist environmentalism. I certainly don't. I want to see us as a society focusing on this problem in a realistic way, and not trying to transform society in the process.

    Use market forces, don't try and suppress them. Pressure our government to act, and ultimately, if necessary, pressure them to pressure others until we have an international treaty. Why anyone would think we need a world government to address a single, specific threat to people everywhere is beyond me.

    We didn't need one to make treaties about nuclear arsenals, or ozone-destroying chemicals, or trade. For any of those things, one could have said "This would be much easier with a world government!" but that's just mushy thinking of the worst sort.

    A world government would make a lot of things easier, but I always think of Churchill's great line about isolating Britain from Europe by physically dragging it across the ocean to the coast of Canada:

    "I do not know of any way in which this could be done. No engineer has come forth with a plan. It would, in any case, take a long time. Have we got a long time?"

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