Why cli­mate in­ter­ven­tion is wrong

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Some of the most im­por­tant is­sues fac­ing us are dif­fi­cult for any­one to as­sess, even the best and bright­est. John Charles Ku­nich, an ex­pert in en­vi­ron­men­tal law, con­sid­ers when one must risk “not just your own life, but also the lives of your fam­ily, your friends, and count­less mil­lions of other peo­ple.” In these cases “We are truly bet­ting the Earth,” whether we act or not.

Mr. Ku­nich fo­cuses on two en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues of note: global warm­ing and en­dan­gered species. While the top­ics are tai­lor-made for scare-mon­ger­ing, Mr. Ku­nich does the op­po­site. He com­plains that “some of our most vi­tal en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues have been han­dled in a man­ner more re­sem­bling a faith-based re­li­gious doc­tri­nal dis­pute than an ev­i­dence-rooted phe­nomeno­log­i­cal prob­lem.” His ob­jec­tive is to en­cour­age ra­tio­nal ar­gu­ment.

It is a daunt­ing task. How can even in­tel­li­gent lay­men form an opin­ion on com­plex is­sues where a mis­take could have cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for the planet?

In an en­gag­ing and con­ver­sa­tional tone, he de­scribes the pa­ram­e­ters of de­bate for his two is­sues. For in­stance, he doesn’t try to per­suade any­one that the globe is warm­ing or cool­ing, but rather “that there is some cred­i­ble sci­en­tific ev­i­dence on both sides of the cli­mate change is­sue, and that our abil­ity to erase any rel­e­vant ques­tion marks any time soon is it­self ques­tion­able at best.”

Most of us are ill-pre­pared to deal with such cos­mic un­cer­tainty. So he looks back to three fig­ures in his­tory to help “point us for­ward to a way of un­der­stand­ing the role of in­com­plete and un­clear in­for­ma­tion in life, and in­deed in the en­tire uni­verse.”

The first is Blaise Pas­cal, who died young (39) in the mid-17th cen­tury. A de­vout Catholic, Pas­cal, writes Mr. Ku­nich, “con­joined re­li­gion and math­e­mat­ics in a way that would have a mean­ing­ful and last­ing im­pact on the world.” Mr. Ku­nich fo­cuses on Pas­cal’s Wa­ger, which con­tem­plates why skep­tics should bet on the ex­is­tence of God. Pas­cal wrote: “there is here an in­fin­ity of an in­fin­itely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a fi­nite num­ber of chances of loss, and what you stake is fi­nite.”

It might not seem much to work with, but Mr. Ku­nich broad­ens the ap­pli­ca­tion: “Pas­cal teaches us that we should weigh both the size and the like­li­hood of each fac­tor be­fore we make our de­ci­sion.” Such con­sid­er­a­tions ob­vi­ously re­late to en­v­i­ron-men­tal de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Kurt Goedel lived about three cen­turies later. A bril­liant math- emati­cian, Goedel de­vel­oped two in­com­plete­ness the­o­rems. Un­for­tu­nately, writes Mr. Ku­nich, these “do not lend them­selves as read­ily to pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing as Pas­cal’s Wa­ger.”

Nev­er­the­less, prin­ci­ples can be ap­plied. The first is that “in­side the bound­aries of a con­text, proof has its lim­i­ta­tions.” More sim­ply, not ev­ery­thing is prov­able. The sec­ond is “that the con­sis­tency of any con­sis­tent, ax­iomatic the­ory can’t be proved in­side the sys­tem.” The point is not that noth­ing can be proved, but that there will al­ways be some things which can­not be proved. Physi­cist Werner Heisen­berg com­pletes the trio. An­other 20th cen­tury fig­ure, his most noted achieve­ment in the field of quan­tum me­chan­ics is the “un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple.” It is im­pos­si­ble to si­mul­ta­ne­ously know the pre­cise po­si­tion and ve­loc­ity of a par­ti­cle. Other sci­en­tists have found re­lated re­sults in their own fields. For in­stance, Ed­ward Nor­ton Lorenz found it dif­fi­cult to pre­dict the move­ment of air in the at­mos­phere. Ex­plains Mr. Ku­nich: “the star­tlingly coun­ter­in­tu­itive find­ing was that even the tini­est, most minute vari­a­tions in the ini­tial val­ues and con­di­tions could re­sult in ma­jor di­ver­gence in fi­nal out­put.”

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing is the ir­ra­tional­ity of many peo­ple. Mr. Ku­nich pro­poses a sim­ple test: “Read a few blogs, op-ed pieces, or mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles that dis­cuss your topic. How many log­i­cal fal­la­cies can you find in the first five min­utes?”

Mr. Ku­nich then ap­plies these prin­ci­ples in what he calls the “World Wa­ger” to both en­dan­gered species and cli­mate change. He re­jects a sim­plis­tic be­lief in “bet­ter safe than sorry.” The rea­son: “An ir­ra­tionally riska­verse, safety-ad­dicted mind­set pro­duces the para­dox­i­cal, and counter-in­tu­itive, ef­fect of mak­ing its ad­her­ents at once more vul­ner­a­ble (or at least vul­ner­a­ble in a dif­fer­ent way) and less pro­duc­tive.”

Broadly speak­ing, he sug­gests ac­tion on species preser­va­tion and in­ac­tion on global warm­ing.

“Bet­ting the Earth” is an un­usual book. Rather than of­fer­ing cer­tainty, the au­thor ad­mits to “ques­tion marks, un­knowns, doubts, gaps, and un­cer­tain­ties form­ing the raw ma­te­ri­als of this book.”

Mr. Ku­nich gives us prin­ci­ples to think more clearly and ra­tio­nally. It re­mains our re­spon­si­bil­ity to ap­ply them.

Doug Bandow, a se­nior fel­low at the Cato In­sti­tute, is a for­mer spe­cial as­sis­tant to Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan.

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