Sunday, August 8, 2010

This Time It's Different

In The Right and the Climate, an opinion piece for the New York Times, Ross Douthat discusses the abandonment of cap-and-trade legislation by the US senate. He argues that Democrats must share the blame for the failure of cap-and-trade because they have exhausted the population's patience for doomsday stories. "The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms, and none was more potent than the fear that human population growth had outstripped the earth’s carrying capacity," he says. "The catastrophes never materialized, and global living standards soared." But the global warming doomsday story is different, Douthat says, because, "History, however, rarely repeats itself exactly — and conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken."

People like Paul Ehrlich, who predicted global famine, and Rachel Carson, who claimed that DDT was killing humans, both believed in what they were saying. It turns out that they were wrong in their most famous claims, but they were doing their best to understand the dangers presented by lower infant mortality and widespread use of new chemicals. They believed in their cause and they believed in what they told us.

When Douthat says, "the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore," he seems to think that the evidence for global famine and chemical poisoning were unconvincing at the time that Ehrlich and Carson made their claims. But that's not the case. The evidence was convincing. A lot of people were convinced, including the US government under John Kennedy. But "convincing" is not the same as "correct". It turns out that their arguments were convincing but not correct.

Douthat is an example of the many well-educated people who have chosen to believe in anthropogenic global warming despite the history of environmental scare-mongering. The internet bubble was caused by people saying "this time it's different: revenue counts, not profit." The housing bubble was caused by people saying, "this time it's different: prices will never go down." The anthropomorphic global warming bubble has been caused by people saying, "this time it's different: the evidence is too compelling."

Here's my prediction: this time it's not different.

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