Belmont Club

Climate change

ResilienceA senior Australian climatologist who reviewed the evidence for the anthropogenic global warming model at a lecture I attended laid out in detail what he felt were the certain, plausible and questionable parts of the AGW case, like a man surveying a building for soundness. He concluded that while there were some points in its favor, AGW was not proved (partly because very large parts of the climate system are only now being studied, partly because parameters in the computer models have been grossly misestimated, etc) but finished with an interesting remark that could have been the subject of another lecture in itself. He said (and I paraphrase)

‘we are now being asked to cut back on CO2 concentrations to pre-industrial levels at the practical cost of reducing our available energy sources. What nobody has studied is what this reduction in available civilizational energy will do to our resilience. The earth’s climate has been changing for as far back as we’ve studied it, and humanity has responded to climatological variations by adaptation. But you need energy to adapt. Fuel to move food to flooded areas; evacuate victims. Moderate excessive heat; warm against excessive cold. Rebuild after storms. All this requires energy. What does it mean when, in the name of reducing carbon emissions, we reduce our civilizational energy sources and thereby reduce our resilience? Who has thought this through?’

The remark hung in the air until it was dispelled by questioners who moved on to the subject matter of the presentation itself: the datasets and coefficients in the equations he had presented. The remark about resilience was forgotten. But it soon returned in another guise. Many of the scientists and engineers in attendance were appalled at the free and easy way in which politicians distorted the known facts, a subject which roused them in a way that belied their sober dress and careful speech, so that they resembled nothing so much as ents at a rave dance party. One 94 year old gentleman actually stumped up to the podium on his crutches to denounce the “villainous” inaccuracies that daily went unchallenged in the media, announced that he had personally written to a long list of politicians to set them straight on the facts and asked the audience to do the same. How, I wondered, did narratives like AGW adapt to the arrival of contradictory facts? How did an ideology demonstrate resilience in the face of a political storm?

Pundits sometimes resort to wagers to express their degree of belief in the accuracy of their predictions. Bret Stephens, for example, described how he won his bet with Francis Fukuyama on the way the war in Iraq would turn out.

In March 2006, I wrote a blistering review of “America at the Crossroads,” Mr. Fukuyama’s sensational repudiation both of the war in Iraq as well as the neoconservative movement of which he was once a leading light. The book was widely praised. I called its arguments weak …

There followed between us an exchange of emails, in which Mr. Fukuyama pointed to various pieces he had published prior to the war indicating some concerns about how the U.S. would go in, and some foreboding about what might follow. He also mentioned a $100 bet he had made in May 2003 with a friend — a supporter of the war — that Iraq would be a mess five years after the invasion, the definition of a mess being “you’d know one if you saw it.” We agreed to make the same bet. …

I nearly forgot about the bet until last Friday, when the Washington Post reported U.S. combat fatalities in Iraq for the month of July. … With this in mind, I wrote Mr. Fukuyama to suggest that he owed me $100. He conceded, albeit strictly on “the narrow terms” of the bet itself.

Mr. Fukuyama insists, however, that he has been vindicated on the broader issue: “We’ve spent a trillion or so dollars, 30,000 dead or wounded, a large loss in international influence and prestige, all for the sake of disarming a country with no WMDs.”

Stephens won a hundred bucks but no cigar. Ideas like “Iraq is a quagmire” — and many other arguments popular on the Left or the Right — are very resistant to extinction; they adapt to storms by injecting more energy, in the shape of other “facts” into the debate; by changing the frame of reference or making a larger prediction further into the future. Now suppose Mr. Stephens were to make another bet with Mr. Fukuyama on an indicator that could accurately represent a resolution of “the broader issue”? On for example, whether an pro-American regime in Iran would be in place in ten years? How long could this betting process go on before one side or the other was bankrupted and the other emerged triumphant? A long time, but not forever. Narratives do go extinct, but only eventually.

Maybe the political system acts like a casino which stores the results of public policy wagers. It “remembers” albeit very imperfectly who was generally right or wrong on a particular issue and hands out payoffs. Barack Obama, for example, seems to have lost a political bet that Iraq would fail (in narrow terms) and McCain’s hundred dollar check duly arrived in the gain of a few poll percentage points. But Obama has plenty of political currency and can keep playing; he is now making the bet that he will “be vindicated on the broader issue”. He might win, but any politician that keeps losing his bets will eventually run out of resilience and become nonviable.

It used to be the case that the MSM, playing Felix Leiter to a candidate’s James Bond in Casino Royale, could mint large quantities of political capital by controlling the narrative and save a political cause from ruin, within limits. That is becoming potentially more difficult as more old media outlets collapse. But not impossible. And with the stakes so high the struggle to control information will probably take new forms. Some ideas cling to existence almost as tenaciously as biological life. Maybe we’ll find one day that they’re two sides of the same coin and the surprising thing is that some people, forced to choose between their biology and ideology, will opt for the latter.

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