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On global warming and techno-optimism


"Sometimes," Ross Douthat says, "it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through." He's talking about global warming, and giving voice to a common line of thinking. Sure, the argument goes, global warming is real. But it's a long-term problem. By the time it becomes a serious threat, we'll have more money, and more technology, to deal with it. Environmentalists draw these graphs with temperatures soaring during the next 100 years, and then going even higher in the 100 years after that, and the 100 years after that, but they don't take into account how much more we'll be able to do by then.

There's something to this line of thinking. We really don't know what we'll be able to do by the year 2100. America's best scientists are studying the problem. China just committed more than $700 billion to funding clean energy research over the next decade. We're human beings. We'll think of something.

But will it be enough? The example I've been using to show the limits of techo-optimism has been the BP spill. We could've stopped it from happening, but we couldn't reverse it once it happened. And we know a lot more about managing oil spills than about manipulating the atmosphere. But reading Atul Gawande's article on dying brought another example to mind: cancer.

Cancer, of course, has been a long-term problem. For decades now, we've put an enormous amount of money into researching cures and treatments. We've thrown our best minds at the problem. And we've made some remarkable advances. But not nearly enough of them. Insofar as we've been waging a war on cancer, there's a very good argument that we're losing, and it's not clear when, or whether, we'll turn it around.

Sometimes, the best minds and a lot of money are enough. That's been the case in computers. As this proposal for more energy research says, if our technology had been left in 1975, the iPod would cost $1 billion and be the size of a building. But sometimes, money and minds are not enough. We can't solve problems so much as try and prevent them. And the death of cap-and-trade means we're not going to hedge against the possibility of our failure.

Photo credit: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 28, 2010; 10:09 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Next: Tom Toles is worth a thousand words


Two mutually exclusive points:

1) the National Park system is a great example of the benefit of stepping in and preserving something beautiful, rather than simply assuming that a future generation will make it all better.

2) but the National Parks also show how great places can be restored. Most of them are cleaner, and more wilderness-y, than they were 100 years ago.

More generally, it's probably hard to convince everyone that we have to act now when people know, in the backs of their minds, that one big volcanic eruption (or its artificial equivalent) can cool the planet by several degrees.

Posted by: simpleton1 | July 28, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Unless the volcano is the Siberian Trappes. They only killed most of life on earth.
Wishful thinking will not get it done. I suppose if we put off our national debt for another decade or two someone will come up with a totally unforseen solution. Or perhaps nuclear proliferation. Maybe someone will discover a pill that neutralizes radiation.
I would call this the "Sleeper" solution.(After the Woody Allen movie)
But what do you bet the corporations will get even richer?

Posted by: ostrogoth | July 28, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

We've gotten better at manipulating information, and at sophisticated rerrangements of small amounts of matter. But there's a good arguemnt that we've gotten worse (certainly relatively speaking, possibly in absolute terms) at moving and rearranging large chunks of matter. In part because we haven't invested diddly in same for 40 years.

Climate change, like oil spills, involves large chunks of matter.

Posted by: paul314 | July 28, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I would remind all that life has survived on earth long enough to evolve humans. So the odds are with us. On the other hand previous disasters that narrowed humanity to the brink were natural (comets, asteroids, volcanos). Other life altering natural events like ice ages and plagues did not approach extinction events for humans. The jury is still out on this one. We don't know the extent, how the earth might mitigate CO2 and we have more tools. At some point if it becomes bad enough, the deniers will become irrelevant either by conversion or extinction. It is clear to me that the cosmos attacks the toes of the bell curve hardest and that's where our nomenclatura live; dangerous territory to occupy and for all their wealth and power they don't realize it.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | July 28, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

The incremental progress we've made in the last 40 years on cancer is pretty disappointing -- especially measured against the trillions we've committed to R&D around it. For that matter, if we were fighting HIV on the timeline of a war, we'd be getting our asses whupped, even though it's now a manageable chronic disease for many.

But diseases don't threaten to make the planet uninhabitable. They'll kill some number of us but not all of us. Global warming is an existential threat to the species, and Douthat wants to hit the snooze button and hope futurescience will take care of it for us instead of dinging the profits of our corporate overlords and frogmarching the comfortable into inconvenient, if incremental, lifestyle changes.

Posted by: matthewarnold | July 28, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

What I would like to see is a greater emphasis on the things that can be done politically in the hope that gradually we'll bring everyone around. How about better tax breaks for alternative fueled vehicles, credits for efficient appliances and insulation, massive alternative energy farms, etc.? Use more carrots before using the stick.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | July 28, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

My concern with Mr. Douthat's stance is that it doesn't provide any guidance as to when we stop waiting.

In most of corporate America, ideas generate tests of new products, services, or features. Many don't succeed and others are continually tinkered with based on new ideas and consumer demand. Very few products are designed 'right' the first time.

In other words, corporate America acts on what it knows, or thinks it knows, at the time.

Translate that to climate change. We know, or think we know, many things about how humanity influences it right now. In Mr. Douthat's view, we should still wait before acting. Yet by testing our current knowledge or theories, we place ourselves in a better position to make bigger discoveries and implement bigger changes in the future.

Posted by: MsJS | July 28, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Here's another problem: Companies can't develop the technologies until they have regulation in place.

Posted by: uberblonde1 | July 28, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

"And the death of cap-and-trade means we're not going to hedge against the possibility of our failure."

"Death"? You mean it can never come back, ever? And this means we will never "hedge" against global warming?

You're showing your youth. Congress will return, year after year after year. If, but only if, it keeps getting hotter, something will eventually be done.

Posted by: ostap666 | July 28, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

The sad parallel in the case of cancer is that, for all the money we've spent on treatment, we've made very little effort on restricting the proliferation of carcinogenic chemicals. It's hard to say how much the carcinogens we're exposed to in consumer products increase the incidence of cancer, but it's certainly at least a little. And while we've spent billions trying to treat the disease, the power of the chemical industry has ensured that we don't have any meaningful process for preventing widespread exposure to the chemicals that potentially cause it.

Posted by: RobK_ | July 28, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

That cancer article was gag-inducing. The insistence of journalists on dressing up the War on Cancer as some kind of morality play is extremely annoying. "The BAD scientists ignored the public and played with cells and pathways while ignoring the GOOD scientists, who listened and cared and thought about the BIG PICTURE!"

Could it be that there are no moral distinctions between the good and bad scientists, but that only those scientists who were lucky enough to be vindicated by time get to give interviews about how they listened and thought about the big picture?

That type of science journalism is the equivalent to political science articles that blame a candidate's loss on his lack of charisma and tortured relationship with his father, when in reality he was just an incumbent during a recession.

Posted by: CarlosXL | July 28, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

The concern is that by the time it gets hot enough that pols and their corporate paymasters are moved to do something about the problem, it'll probably be too late. I imagine Douthat's position is, more or less, screw it, we'll be dead, and maybe science can save future generations. Thanks, party of personal responsibility, suits and seriousness

Posted by: matthewarnold | July 28, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

A side point to this is that Ross's "solution", "wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through," seems to be the Right's solution to every problem. Not really a winning formula for effective governance, unfortunately.

Posted by: deanlambrecht | July 28, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

No, there really isn't much to Douthat's argument.

First, it's moral cowardice. It's fine to say that we a) can't solve the problem right now and b) will at some future point be better equipped to solve the problem right now, but that does not obviate the duty to do what we can right now.

More importantly, while future tech may be able to better solve the climate problems, the expectation is for future problems to accelerate. This requires us to believe that tech solutions will accelerate at a rate even greater than the expected accelerating rate of climte change. Head hurt yet? Further, the capacity of future tech to solve the problems we are intentionally creating is, in part, predicated on the supposition that we will be richer in the future. Of course, if climate change adversely impacts prosperity growth then we may find ourselves right where we are right now, only with a hotter planet and more people angered by the lack of progress.
So no, there isn't much more to Douthat's argument than an apologia for cowardice.

Posted by: damnpost1 | July 28, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Cancer and global warming are also similar in that externalities in the form of pollution are a big part of the problem. Also that the biggest losers from a solution (regulation of environmental toxins) have the most money and power to block it. Instead we're nibbling around the edges with high-concept but ineffectual fixes (the Prius and farmers' markets on one hand, genetic testing and pink ribbons on the other).

Posted by: csdiego | July 28, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I suggest you check out the New Jersey company BlackLight Power, which credibly claims that it has a process that gets 200X the energy from hydrogen as burning it. Don't believe? Check out this short CNN clip:

Still are too skeptical to investigate further? Check out this video of a respected NorthEastern University called "Rowan" verifying the "BlackLight Process:"

Frankly, if we can get alot more energy from hydrogen than it takes to get it from water, then that technology is "bigger than fire." This isn't exaggeration. Technological optomism...YEAH!!!

Posted by: dobermantmacleod | July 28, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Here's another inconvenient fact. Dr Lindzen a researcher from MIT has proven,using real satellite data rather than faux computer projections, that most of the CO2 has in fact escaped from the earth's atmosphere into outer space. These observation have been taken over the last 20 years or so.

So if CO2 is the your culprit of choice, better find another one!

Posted by: Jimbo77 | July 28, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

June 29th, the Environmental News Service carried a headline that ends: Arctic Now Near Climate Tipping Point. The story stated three studies have concluded that 400 parts per million of carbon now appears to be the critical, life threatening, figure. We are currently approaching 390 ppm and have been adding 2 ppm each year. As you know, a safe limit is considered to be 350 ppm.

In a blog entitled, Worst Case Scenario, a scientist has suggested that should sufficient Gulf oil enter the Atlantic to provide a very thin reflective film in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans - that could accelerate the Tipping Point, a self-amplifying feedback loop, with life threatening implications for polar bears and walruses. Methane Tipping Point Threat expands those implications to us.

In an Op Ed piece entitled, Ticking Time Bomb, John Atcheson warned of the Tipping Point threat posed by melting permafrost in the Arctic. He points out that twice before life on earth was the victim of Tipping Points. One of those events reduced life to single celled organisms. Millions of years were required to recover.

A 5 Step Emergency Program:

1. Check the facts: A place to start might be to read Ticking Time Bomb, Methane Tipping Point Threat and Worst Case Scenario. All three articles have been reposted at:

2. Contain the oil: Effective techniques are available. Put all of them to work on an emergency basis 24/7;

3. Supersede fossil fuels as fast as is humanly possible. Mobilization similar to the way we would meet a wartime threat could create millions of public and private sector jobs;

4. Find ways to generate necessary public support to insure Government action in time. A much better Climate Bill could be a good place to begin;

5. Ironically, a program of this magnitude will help create the additional stimulus required to truly revive the economy.

If checking the facts confirms that human life on earth is truly threatened, superseding oil and fossil fuels is possible much more rapidly that might be imagined.

As a first step, every variety of existing renewable energy technology, that might be deployed quickly enough, should be encouraged - by means of suitable incentives - to increase production to the maximum extent possible.

With sufficient effort, it may still be possible to prevent much of the oil in the Gulf from entering the Atlantic. The scientist referred to earlier suggests a boom and weir barrier can be put in place between Key West and Cuba by a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft.

Moving Beyond Oil can be read on the Aesop Institute site. It mentions a couple of revolutionary, presently very difficult to believe, renewable, potentially cost-competitive, technologies. Consider the positive impact of a 24/7 program of validation, development and production.

Posted by: magneticpower | July 28, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

This sort of optimism strikes me as extremely risky. One thing about global warming its not just that the temperature is increasing but that it is accelerating. Every year we put more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than the previous year, every year the reflective ice caps get a little smaller. These processes ultimately push the second derivative of temperature.

To some extent technological progress also accelerates, but who knows which one is accelerating more quickly?

Even if technology might "solve" global warming, the side effects of atmospheric engineering might be almost as awful. (Like that terrible plan to pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.) Unfortunately, global warming is, at its basis, a consequence of fairly simple and well understood physics. There aren't really a lot of shortcuts or free lunches with this stuff.

Posted by: zosima | July 28, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

National Geographic - according to 10 different indicators, global warming is undeniable:

Interesting to see humidity as the first one mentioned.

Posted by: SnowleopardNZ | July 29, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

regarding the cancer analogy, note that it's a lot easier to prevent cancer than to cure it.

Posted by: SnowleopardNZ | July 29, 2010 12:11 AM | Report abuse

"Processes that would normally regulate climate are being driven to amplify warming. Such feedbacks, as well as the inertia of the Earth system — and that of our response — make it doubtful that any of the well-intentioned technical or social schemes for carbon dieting will (work). What is needed is a fundamental cure." --Dr James Lovelock

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

"Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them." --Dr James Lovelock's lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. '07

Posted by: dobermantmacleod | July 29, 2010 1:34 AM | Report abuse

Same old summer pictures!
More Glo-Bull-Ist BS to extract Fraud Carbon Tax money, from what Glo-Bull-Ists think, are the dumbed down masses!
"It's the sun stupid", stick your Glo-Bull-Ist warming where the sun don't shine!

Undeniable? Thats like saying unquestionable! What a crock of poop! "When has true Science or real Scientists ever said, "unquestionable or undeniable"?

Posted by: PaulRevere4 | July 29, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

How may of those who either deny global warming outright or embrace denial-'lite' (let's not do anything because it won't be that bad) employ the same logic when it comes to any other major threat.

Yes, dear, I'll forgo the heart surgery even though 97 out of 100 cardiologists recommend it because I've found a website on the internet and a Fox host who tell me I'll be fine without it.

There's a huge credibility gap on the part of those who would have us do little or nothing, and that is not even taking into account the moral issue of their decision to gamble with everyone's future.

Posted by: bdlieberman | July 29, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

1. Science is an opinion.

2. A pound of cure is worth an ounce of prevention.

3. 8-I

Posted by: scottilla | July 30, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

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