Trust me, I’m the reasonable ideologue

30 October, 2009

Bret Stephens uses his column to bait “global warmists”.

The spark for this particular column is an item in the new book SuperFreakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner. They report a new solution to global warming proposed by Intellectual Ventures (a company which largely serves as a clearinghouse for technological and scientific patents): pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, in order to mimic the global temperature-lowering properties of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano.

After this announcement, various prominent global warming activists are quoted as calling the idea crazy. You can already see where Stephens is going with this, can’t you? He gets in a good dig with the First Commandment of global warming, which is Thou Shalt Not Call It A Religion, and then adds a handful of disputed facts to show that global warming is not an issue, if it is an issue it’s not our fault, and we can’t do anything about it either way.

This logical approach, quite common in the anti-global warming camp, always reminds me of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s eternal wisdom, the standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis:

In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.
Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do.
Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.

Stephens goes on to suggest that people who warn of the global warming crisis are all after a piece of the public-spending action. In some cases this may be true, though both scientists and professional activists tend not to find work difficult to get in any case. He doesn’t mention the possibility that people who’ve grown enormously rich via polluting industries (or who hope to do so) have at least equal incentive to find the facts as favouring their side of the argument. These rich people also have a lot more resources with which to promote their interests.

Finally, Stephens comes out and calls global warming activists and their many “fellow travellers” Marxists, as both ideas feed “man’s neurotic fear of social catastrophe while providing an avenue for moral transcendence”. I have no doubt that there are many mindless ideologues in the global warming camp, but True Believers are found in every avenue of life, and their existence is no proof of the falsity of their ideas. Many anti-global warming campaigners are obviously on the band wagon for the chance to relive the culture wars of old, regardless that the issues at stake do not exactly co-align.

What of the proposal itself, to pump sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere? Here are the obvious counterarguments, which I hope you will see are not merely ideological kneejerk reactions:

1. Sulphur dioxide has negative environmental effects: it contributes to acid rain (which is why industry in the West has been reducing its coal and petroleum emissions since the 1970s), which has a negative effect on foliage and water supplies, this eventually causing harm to living creatures. Atmospheric sulphur dioxide is also associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death.
2. Continually pumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere will require a large ongoing supply. If global warming causes increase in strength, more will be required. It may be easier to just set off a volcano.
3. If global warming is “solved” by sulphur dioxide, action to reduce emissions may be halted (will be halted, if we are honest about these things). As emissions increase unchecked, more sulphur dioxide will need to be used to offset the problem, which will exacerbate the issues mentioned in point one.

So, a less caustic substance would be better. But even so, the cause of the problem would increase.

But according to Stephens, the problem itself doesn’t exist in the first place, so why has he written a column about the “solution”?

Well, he is an ideologue, and his concern is with ideological combat, not the problems of the real world. Ideologues on both sides of the argument would best be ignored, leaving the grown-ups to manage the problems without their “help”.

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