14 August 2009

Are Some Thoughts Best Left Unsaid?

Not a day goes by that I read something I cannot believe has been said in the debate over global warming. It makes blogging easy, but it sure cannot help the case of climate policy making. In an interview, Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling explains to The Atlantic why politicians need to exaggerate the threat of global warming and why he hopes for massive disasters.

When asked how policies get put in place that mainly benefit people far into the future he explains that:
It's a tough sell. And probably you have to find ways to exaggerate the threat. And you can in fact find ways to make the threat serious. I think there's a significant likelihood of a kind of a runaway release of carbon and methane from permafrost, and from huge offshore deposits of methane all around the world. If you begin to get methane leaking on a large scale -- even though methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere very long -- it might warm things up fast enough that it will induce further methane release, which will warm things up more, which will release more. And that will create a huge multiplier effect, and it could become very serious.
Later Schelling is asked to clarify that comment and the reporter, Conor Clarke, expresses some sympathy with Schelling's views (bold is the reporter):
And when you say, "exaggerate the costs" do you mean, American politicians should exaggerate the costs to the American public, to get American support for a bill that will overwhelmingly benefit the developing world?

[Laughs] It's very hard to get honest people.

Well, part of me sympathizes with the case for disingenuousness! I mean, it seems to me that there is a strong moral case for helping unborn Bangladeshi citizens. But I don't know how you sell that. It's not in anyone's rational interest, at least in the US, to legislate on that basis.

That's a problem. The standard of living in the United States will almost certainly be higher in 80 years than it is now.
Schelling ends the interview expressing a wish for more disasters:
But I tend to be rather pessimistic. I sometimes wish that we could have, over the next five or ten years, a lot of horrid things happening -- you know, like tornadoes in the Midwest and so forth -- that would get people very concerned about climate change. But I don't think that's going to happen.


  1. and then to end that last quote with, "But I don't think that's going to happen"


  2. Dr. Pielke,

    I know, I’ve mentioned it before. But, let’s not forget the infamous comments of Dr. Stephen Schneider.

    Dr. Schneider, on his own web page quotes himself (emphasis mine):

    “On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective [in advancing the political cause] and being honest [in describing the science]. I hope that means being both.”