Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Problem With The Feel Good Crowd

I want to present to you a comment that demonstrates the fallacy inherent in the thinking of many Do Gooder types who believe that good intentions automatically translate into good results. Let me preface this by saying that the argument presented in the comment is false, but I do not believe that it is intentionally false. That is, I do not believe the person who made this comment was actively trying to distort anything but rather actually believes that things are as simple as the comment represents. This naivety is central to the problem of arguing or debating with certain people. This is not quite the same thing as those who demonize their opponents because those people are doing it maliciously with the intent to shut down debate. These people, on the other hand, truly believe that there is no debate because they truly believe that there are only positive results from what they want and only negative from the other side.
I should also note that, while this comment deals specifically with the climate change argument, the fallacy involved is by no means restricted to that debate. This thinking is widespread and interferes with rational discussion in all kinds of areas.
"The thing that bothers me about people who deny man-made global warming is this; what if public politics and policy ultimately reflect your views, and you end up being wrong? We are not only stuck with more pollution in the air, we also potentially have to deal with crop-threatening droughts and the sea swallowing up our coastal cities.

If the people who believe man-made global warming is real have instead their vision of public policy being adopted so that pollution is reduced, and they end up being wrong, we have... cleaner air. Hmmmm....

Any person vocally opposing man-made global warming theory seems to me simply short-sighted. There are so many other lousy causes to take up that are better."
See there? Only sunshine and flowers from what I want; only doom and gloom from what you want. If you're wrong it kills everything; if we're wrong nothing gets hurt and you get a bonus. I have seen people intentionally and maliciously use misrepresent the debate in this way - and I have jumped down on them with both feet - but I have also seen plenty of people for whom this is a genuine belief, and those people need to be addressed as well.
First of all, the number of people arguing for more pollution is vanishingly small. Sure there are those in various areas of business and industry who would love to be able to do anything they want to maximize profits with no consideration for consequences, but they are not the bulk of the skeptic community any more than those who want to use environmental issues for power and money are the bulk of the climate change community. The bulk of both communities is predominantly real people who truly believe that their position is the best position for people as a whole. Anyone who dismisses that fact is not giving you an honest discussion.
Disagreeing with, being skeptical of, or arguing against human caused climate change does not equal supporting more pollution. It is absolutely impossible to give the "stuck with more pollution in the air" argument when existing environmental regulations have already reduced air pollution levels to their lowest points since the Industrial Revolution began. The argument here is not over whether or not to lower air pollution levels - that has already been decided and the decision was to do so - but rather it is about how fast to lower them, what methods to use to lower them, and whether or not to add such things as CO2 to the list of pollutants. That is an entirely different debate than is represented by the comment.
There is no consensus that global warming would result in "crop-threatening droughts". It might happen but it is just as possible that global warming could result in improved farming conditions. Longer growing seasons, arable land where none currently exists. What is most likely, if global warming were to race along at the worst predicted levels - is that some areas would see the negative results while other areas would see the positive results and the net global change (as far as crops go, anyway) would be just about zero. Yes, the people who cannot grow food where they used to do so will not be very happy, but I'll bet the people who can grow what they couldn't in the past will be thrilled.
It is also utter nonsense that rising sea levels will "swallow" coastal cities. The predicted sea level increase is only about 3 millimeters a year or about one foot over the next century. Read that again. A predicted sea level increase if one foot over a period of 100 years. Hardly the Blob That Ate New York. Also keep in mind that this is during an interglacial period when incremental sea level increases are to be expected, regardless of anything else.
In short, the Doom and Gloom of the "if you're wrong" scenario is simply repeating talking points without checking to see if there is any validity in those talking points. However, nothing in that Doom and Gloom scenario of "if you're wrong" is precisely impossible so, if the "if I'm wrong" description is accurate, it's still a better choice, right?
I suppose it could be called a better choice if it were accurate, but it's not accurate so it is not automatically better.
The "if I'm wrong" scenario completely ignores the costs involved. We're not talking chump change here. Far from, in fact. We're talking about billions upon billions of dollars, just in flat, measurable costs. That, alone, should make you want more information. It isn't alone, though. We are also talking about the costs of unemployment - it cannot be denied that many people will be put out of work by the proposed regulations - increased bureaucracy, decreased freedoms, and various other less tangible, less measurable costs. If there truly is a coming catastrophe and if these costs can truly help to avert that catastrophe then it might be possible to argue that the costs are worth it. However, you cannot simply dismiss these costs out of existence when making comparisons and you cannot make any argument that the costs might be worth it by pretending the costs aren't there in the first place.
As I said at the beginning, there are many people who actually believe that it is as simple as "even if I'm wrong you get cleaner air and no one gets hurt, so there is no downside", but it is not that simple. There is a potential downside and you cannot make that downside disappear just by offering cleaner air. I, personally, am all for cleaner air. We, as a whole, are already working toward (and quite successfully, I might add) cleaner air. The difference is, my preferred methods have already demonstrated positive results and lower costs while your preferred methods cost boatloads more and are largely untried and experimental. In the presence of an imminent, fixable catastrophe costly new methods might be just the trick. In the absence of such a catastrophe, however, they are irresponsible, possibly criminally so. So let's get back to determining the realities of that catastrophe, shall we, and skip the naive "I'm all sunshine and flowers but you're all doom and gloom" comparisons.

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