Friday, June 29, 2007

Perspectives on Climate Change - and Denial

After I posted an earlier draft of this informal appraisal of climate-denial, the ensuing discussion helped to clarify many matters. It also provoked me to cover some additional categories. The result is an expanded and more fleshed-out article, which I'll post here, so that it can be available in a handy, semi-final form. Comments continue to be welcome.


Perspectives on Climate Change - and The Ritualization of Denial

Recently, on the pages of a very high-ranked tech commerce newsletter, I was personally challenged by a former top member of Enron, to answer a series of standard neoconservative mantras concerning global climate change. Talking points that - in my opinion and in the opinion of almost every scientifically-educated person I know - smack of ritualized denial.

Alas, what we are seeing, nowadays, is not a debate, but rather, two subsets of the same civilization shouting past each other from entirely different assumptions and motivat and even mental processes. It can be difficult to find discursive bridges -- ways to cross this dangerous gulf -- when one side relies completely upon illogical and frantic catechisms of faith.

For those interested in a basic guided-tour of facts and fallacies behind the Climate Change Imbroglio, try starting with a list of 26 common questions in dispute, published by The New Scientist Magazine.

In contrast, what follows here is not so much a refutation based upon facts -- there are countless papers, books and sites devoted to compiling, presenting and hurling mountains of evidence -- as it is a list of points offered in perspective. Spotlighting some deceitful tricks used by those who want civilization to sit on its hands, despite a looming crisis that could end our recent golden age.

Let’s start with an excerpt from that former Enronista -- an example from the deniers’playbook of talking points:

...Global temperatures have not risen in concert with atmospheric co2 levels, which have shot up dramatically, while global average temperatures have not really changed very much at all since the late 1970s.

Except... um... that seven of the hottest years of the last 100 have been in the last decade? But no, I said that will not bandy facts. Except in service of logic. And so commenceth my reply.

1) Indeed, global temperatures have not risen as dramatically as CO2 levels have, in recent decades.

CO2 levels, in turn, have not risen as much as CO2 emissions have. So why have temperatures only risen a little, so far?

Most atmospheric scientists cite the prodigious buffering capacity of the oceans. But this is a double-edged sword. It also means that that buffering capacity may - at ANY moment - abruptly reach a limit, as anyone who has saturated a solution in chem class knows fully well. When that happens, not only will the partial absorption of CO2 excess stop, but any perturbation may “blurp” stored CO2 -- or even the methanic clathrates which lie in vast quantities beneath arctic seas. (For more on this.)

2) Another worrisome aspect of relying on buffering effects is that this same “climate inertia” may make it extremely hard to enact corrective measures, should our children (cursing our names) decide that they do not like the situation that we bequeathed upon them.

3) An obscure factoid - and one that’s rather fascinating, when one contemplates matters like life in the universe... and how we may be rather unusual. It appears that our sun’s “continuously habitable zone” (CHZ) actually extends beyond Mars! That poor planet was simply too small. If larger, it would have had seas, kept in “gaia-stability” by a high equilibrium level of greenhouse carbon dioxide. In other words, the farther out - and colder - you get within the CHZ, the more that greenhouse gases become your planet’s friend. (Trust me, planetary scientists know all about this. You don’t even need life on a water-world, in order to achieve gaia-balance, just ocean-mediated chemistry.)

Key point. The CHZ around a G type star is very wide, featuring a sliding scale of how much greenhouse gas a planet will settle upon, in order to keep liquid seas.

Now, what makes Earth apparently weird, galactically, is that we seem to skim the very inner edge of our sun’s CHZ. We dwell at the very hottest lip of Sol’s CHZ. Earth’s radiation balance depends on an almost utterly transparent atmosphere, swept almost completely clear of greenhouse gases. (Indeed, that inner edge will pass us in just half a billion years, when nothing will prevent the final warming, no matter how clear/transparent the atmosphere becomes.)

You can fight atmospheric science and climatology, but not astrophysics.

4) So, science itself must become the target.

How else to explain why neocon court mantricians like Michael Crichton have rushed to denounce the very concept of “scientific consensus”... sneering that scientific “facts are not things that can be voted upon. Nor do facts care about majority opinion.”

Hm. Well. Any scientist would concede this point... then add: “So?”

Look. What is at stake here is public policy -- the allocation of resources and application of laws for the betterment of a civilization and its people. And when you reduce this process to its essential element, public policy is based upon anticipation of what steps we should take now in order to have a better life later..

Ever since our prefrontal lobes acquired their time-forward focus, people have tried to plan for the future, based upon best-models of a murky tomorrow. Now that we have moved beyond arm waving prophecy, the pragmatic question has become, how shall we let science affect policy?

The classic American answer, ever since the days of the great (but now ironically named) Vannevar Bush, was to establish eclectic and august bodies of scientific expertise. To continually exposes areas that need infusions of research support. And for policy makers to lean on the best advisory teams possible. NEVER have these teams claimed perfect foresight! Still, despite some mistakes, they have done the best they could. Indeed, the record of good advice racked up by groups like the Office of Technology Assessment is admirable.

How has the Neocon movement broken with this tradition?

In 1994, the Gingrich revolution instantly disbanded every bit of autonomous advisory staff answerable to Congress. Later, when this movement took control of the White House, it acted against every scientific agency that could not be dissolved, from FDA to Agriculture to NASA itself, by cutting budgets, by redesigning mission statements and by stocking the top administrator slots with partisan hacks, most of them deeply despised by their scientific peers.

Which brings us to the twin hypocrisy of the Crichtonian rationalization.

a) The creed “there’s no such thing as scientific consensus” appears to claim that scientific advice should not influence policy, if even a small minority can be found, to disagree with that advice. What it boils down to is an excuse for scientifically ignorant politicians who have (at best) a 52% political mandate, to dismiss as irrelevant the worried expert opinions of (at-least) 80% majorities of scientists, in fields like atmospheric science.

It is just another version of the longstanding British tradition that “boffins” should stay in their labs and leave policy to Cambridge English majors.

b) The “we need more research” mantra, repeated endlessly on the right, becomes hypocritical to a truly treasonous degree when the people who chant this phrase then turn around and cut research! e.g. when they divert and slash NASA’s Earthward studies programs while publicly demanding that policy decisions wait for new data.

(Another example: strenuous efforts to divert attention from the other effect that is being wrought by increased atmospheric CO2, a recent, steady acidification of our oceans by dissolved carbonate, which is already wreaking harmful effects on the food chains we all rely upon. Completely aside from “warming” - this should be ringing alarm bells. What apology will suffice, if the neocons prove as wrong about this, as they did about, say, Martin Luther King?)

5) Another Shibboleth: “Harm to the economy.”

I cannot get over how little faith in markets is displayed by purported defenders of markets! Dig it. Society has artificially subsidized or scarcified numerous commodities, over the ages. Grain subsidies go back to Pharaohnic times. If past history is any judge, the chief effect of artificially advancing the rapidly-approaching era of higher carbon-fuel costs - in gradual increments - will be simply to open new frontiers for innovative businesses.

(Indeed, to start economizing now, while we still have some domestic petroleum reserves, would seem the prudent and “conservative” thing to do. But more on that, later.)

Sure, some troglodyte SECTORS of the economy may have to adapt if we take action now, using market incentives to act on climate change. But you don’t see Apple or GE or Hitachi crying fear of a general economic downturn.

6) A related neoconservative talking point is the outrageous “State of Fear” notion that all this fuss about climate change is a put-up job, foisted on a gullible public by venial conspirators who are doing it completely out of selfish greed. Supposedly, the eco/recycling industries - worth a few billions - allied with some PBS/media types, are nefariously imposing a culture-wide condition of unreasoning panic, all in order to line their pockets with massive amounts of ill-gotten lucre.

Meanwhile (naturally) the multi-TRILLION dollar carbon fuels industry is but a meek victim, completely innocent of anything of the kind. This party line, promoted despite a three-orders of-magnitude disparity in wealth and power and historically documented raw greed, is actually foisted with a straight face!

Indeed, this whole matter calls for a fairly lengthy side remark, about how psychology and our own cultural values are manipulated in order to achieve this marvel of double think. The American mythos is still deeply driven by Suspicion of Authority (SOA), the basic morality tale found in nearly all of our films and stories. A morality tale that says “watch out for sneaky, dominant elites.” Inherited from revolutionary days - and inherent to the Enlightenment - is the notion that accumulations of undue power merit relentless scrutiny. So deeply ingrained is this lesson - in the American psyche - that it is our reflex to always picture “our side” as the underdogs, and find ways to envision our opponents as some kind of illuminati. (Hey lefties, you do it too!)

What this generation of right-wing, neo-feudalist kleptocrats cannot afford is for “question-elites” scrutiny to fall upon them! Indeed, this may be the number one reason why “culture war” was fostered, creating a reflex among about one-third of Americans to despise anything associated with the word “liberal” - even when some issue at question ought to be non-partisan, technical and a matter referred to dispassionate, professional, scientific advice. The way climate change ought to be apart from normal politics.

Moreover, you have got to hand it to them. The manipulative effects of culture war have been incredible. Simply associate an issue with the despised “L-word,” and you can get Fox News viewers - essentially “Red America” - to envision a nefarious, conspiratorial “elite” that should be reflexively resisted according to our suspicion-of-authority instinct...

... while ignoring other elites who are a thousand times as rich, powerful, and conspiratorial, simply because they are on “the right side.”

ClimateSkeptics7) “Why should we listen to scientists, some of whom were talking about a New Ice Age, as recently as the 1970s?”

As Michael Le Page put it in a recent article: ‘At least, a handful of scientific papers discussed the possibility of a new ice age at some point in the future, leading to some pretty sensational media coverage. One of the sources of this idea may have been a 1971 paper by Stephen Schneider, then a climate researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, US. Schneider's paper suggested that the cooling effect of dirty air could outweigh the warming effect of carbon dioxide, potentially leading to an ice age if aerosol pollution quadrupled.

“However, Schneider soon realized (and published retractions) avowing that he had overestimated the cooling effect of aerosol pollution and underestimated the effect of CO2, meaning warming was more likely than cooling in the long run.”

Now, observe carefully what the real story shows about how far off the neocon interpretation - discrediting science - really is. Remember, we are talking about an era (The 60s and 70s) when climatology was in its infancy and the tools and data were microscopic, compared to today. The number of “Ice Age” papers involved was small, there was no multi-year consensus among atmospheric scientists, “panic” was almost nil. Proposed policy actions consisted of things that were already on the agenda anyway (reducing aerosol emissions, for health reasons), and -- above all -- the scientists involved engaged in a self-correction process that showed utter maturity and science at its very best.

”The calls for action to prevent further human-induced global warming, by contrast, are based on an enormous body of research by thousands of scientists over more than a century that has been subjected to intense – and sometimes ferocious – scrutiny.”

(For more detail:

8) “All right, the climate is changing and humans have done it. We conservatives (finally) admit it. So? I guess it’s already too late to stop the warming. So let’s party on, dude.”

Seriously, that is one of the party lines (rephrased, I’ll admit, for satiric effect.) For example, faced with the fact that the US Navy is hurrying to make plans for an ice-free Arctic, some on the right are offering this “What? Me worry?” stance... as if it were actually logic, coming out of the mouths of adults.

Let me deal with this in two sentences -- all that such tripe deserves:

* Just because you concede that you’ve done damage to a system, that does not make it impossible for you to do MORE damage - e.g. by passing the ocean’s saturation point and triggering the release of vastly MORE greenhouse gases, spurring the “mother of storms.”

* We do not know enough about these things to tell what a “point of no return” would be; that’s what science (which the right has utterly betrayed) is supposed to be for.

9) Penultimate point. There is the matter of “burden of proof.”

Of course it is standard - in all emotion-laden polemical tiffs - to try dumping this burden on the other side. All partisans do this and I am no exception.

Still, ponder this -- it has already been proved repeatedly, that humanity is capable of affecting ecosystems, atmospheric systems (I grew up in LA) and even (in the case of the ozone hole) planetary systems. Thus, it is simply mind-boggling that a concerned majority of world scientists should have to prove their worries valid, beyond all doubt...

...before humanity decides to take simple precautions THAT MAKE SENSE ANYWAY.

10) And that is the final kibosh. The devastator. The ultimate eviscerator of this horrific mass-cult.

Because they never make clear exactly what it is that they are afraid of!

What? Efficiency?

Let me reiterate.
That is what it boils down to. Fear and loathing of... efficiency.

It is what Al Gore, the world’s scientific “consensus” community, the community of nations and all the sensibly worried folks out here are talking about.

Simply putting efficiency at or near the top of our civilization’s urgent agenda.

Investing in research, tweaking some incentives, adjusting some market parameters (that were already meddle-skewed anyway, in wrong directions)...

... all with the goal that we should ...
...get... more... from... less!

And that last part is the real mind-boggler, when you stop to think about it. That all of these polemical maneuvers and illogical arguments and contradictions and hypocrisies should be aimed at diverting us from becoming more productive while depending on fewer resources.

Oh, what has happened to conservatism?

Ever heard of “waste-not, want-not?”

Or “a stitch, in time, saves nine?”

Look back at the old puritans like Cotton Mather. Now remove their trait of nasty intolerance. Then ask - who most resembles the puritans nowadays?

Not today’s profligate, adventurist, insatiable and (above all) indulgence-promoting conservatives.

No. Today’s “puritans”are the worried, chiding and sometimes downright grouchy liberals! Wagging their fingers. Preaching that we ought to save our pennies and frugally learn to live within our means.

Oh, and not befouling our nest! How about a burden of proof for those who say “no worries” about that? Wasn't "cleanliness is next to Godliness" another conservative reflex? Once?

I’ve said it before and I will again, till enough “ostrich conservatives” wake up to how thoroughly their movement has been hijacked by traitors to everything it once stood for.

Hear that whirring sound. That’s the State of Arizona, drawing half its power from the spinning in Barry Goldwater’s grave.

David Brin

* Not to toot a horn. But my novel EARTH (written in 1988) portrayed many of the climate change effects we now see occurring. And then some.

==See: Climate Skeptics vs. Climate Deniers


Anonymous said...

General comments:

* This could be a lot shorter and tighter.

Concentrating on just three or four of the points might be more effective. The "fear of efficiency" notion is especially novel.

* Avoid neologisms like "mantrician" and "Crichtonian" and "Enronista."

* "a former top member of Enron"

Enron had employees, not "members." Be a little more specific.

* Another case of experts waking up and smelling the coffee: Insurance companies are coming to grips with climate change.

* * *

Did you see the Daily Show riff on the "they're trying to scare us" meme?

Stewart quotes someone as saying that global warming fears were being stoked by the Weather Channel as a way of increasing viewership of their lurid storm coverage.

Anonymous said...

(hmmm, last paragraph got cut off).

He then shows a bit of what the Weather Channel is best known for: Endless bland slides of weather forcasts, calm narration, and elevator music.

harry potter5 said...

This might already have been asked: when will this be published? In what magazine?

David Brin said...

Oddly enough, I have time to write this #$@#@ but not time to edit it, document examples, and market it to magazines. Tightening it, per Stefan's request, takes more time than blathering on (albeit a bit repetitiously).

If a zine comes to me with an offer, maybe...

Meanwhile, at least it is a source of talking points. A resource of rthetorical bullets.

Wher I disagree is over shortening the list. It IS the list that makes the full point. That the shotgun blast of denier dogma pellets is internally self-consistent in only one thing. Hypocrisy.

TheRadicalModerate said...


Three arguments in your essay are a bit squishy. In all cases, you've painted as black and white problems that are quite gray.

The first is your economic argument:

I cannot get over how little faith in markets is displayed by purported defenders of markets! Dig it. Society has artificially subsidized or scarcified numerous commodities, over the ages. Grain subsidies go back to Pharaohnic times. If past history is any judge, the chief effect of artificially advancing the rapidly-approaching era of higher carbon-fuel costs - in gradual increments - will be simply to open new frontiers for innovative businesses.

Leaving aside that the response of markets in the face of government intervention is a bit dicey in the best of circumstances, let's look at the two extremes of such government intervention.

First, we have zero government intervention. Things go ticking along as they are now, and our economy collapses due to AGW effects--or not--and the price of oil goes up in an unpredictable way as supply contracts over time.

Or the other (absurd) extreme: We ban all carbon emissions, immediately. Clearly this would cause a prompt economic collapse.

So: somewhere between these two silly extremes lies a solution that is optimal: It gives you the greatest carbon reduction with the least negative (or greatest positive) economic impact. But to argue that adverse economic impact can't ensue from government intervention is as silly as denying that AGW isn't real.

Next, you're arguing something that is intuitively obvious:

That is what it boils down to. Fear and loathing of... efficiency.

It is what Al Gore, the world’s scientific “consensus” community, the community of nations and all the sensibly worried folks out here are talking about.

Simply putting efficiency at or near the top of our civilization’s urgent agenda.

Investing in research, tweaking some incentives, adjusting some market parameters (that were already meddle-skewed anyway, in wrong directions)...

... all with the goal that we should ...
...get... more... from... less!

Well, this sounds lovely, and I even think it's probably correct. But I've fooled around with enough non-linear systems (as I suspect you have, too) to know that intuitive answers should be treated with profound suspicion.

Let's say that the body politic bumbles along to a consensus that AGW is a serious enough problem to spend a trillion dollars of public funds over the next ten years. How should we spend it?

- On efficiency and conservation measures?

- On technology that will phase out hydrocarbons as quickly as possible (battery tech, hydrogen, nukes, maybe even nuclear fusion)?

- On harmless, albedo-increasing stratospheric aerosols in the arctic?

- On high-scale carbon sequestration technologies?

I have no idea what the proper allocation of funds is among these various options (and others). And I daresay neither do you. Once again, we're down into the infinitely gray area of policy. Denying that the policy problem takes care of itself through some sort of market magic is silly.

Finally, let's talk about research:

The “we need more research” mantra, repeated endlessly on the right, becomes hypocritical to a truly treasonous degree when the people who chant this phrase then turn around and cut research! e.g. when they divert and slash NASA’s Earthward studies programs while publicly demanding that policy decisions wait for new data.

Well, now that we all agree that we're virtuous and the other side is a bunch of big fat hypocrites, neener neener neener, let's agree that we really do need more research, shall we? Furthermore, let's understand that what kind of research is vitally important.

So now we're all convinced that Something Is Going On, It's Human-Influenced, and It's Probably Bad. Sounds good to me.

Of course, this is roughly equivalent to a fourteenth century barber noting that when you run a high fever and get buboes under your arms, it's probably bad. A true statement, but not very instructive when it comes to saving your life. The climate science we need to convert AGW mitigation to the engineering problem that it needs to be is simply not there.

We obviously can't wait for the science to be suitable for engineering. At the same time, we have to recognize that even the most innocuous-seeming interventions in the status quo may have large, non-linear, possibly negative, consequences. Until you ackowledge the complexity of the problem, you're unlikely to convince even the skeptics, to say nothing of the three- and four-sigma lunatic fringe of outright deniers.

Steve Gilham said...

Well, learn something every day. I'd not previously been aware of anthropogenic factors in the Global Cooling fad -- just that temperatures had seemed to have peaked short of the Mediaeval Warm period, were getting cooler, and, by the way, hadn't this been a very long interglacial already.

From the UK, the problem is not with deniers -- far the opposite. The whole issue has been co-opted into the political Fear Machine, as an excuse for more taxes, with an energy policy until this week's reshuffle, led by a Minister with vast ignorance of his remit (and the new arrangement inspires me with little confidence), and a whole bunch of "this is why we can't have nice things" pronouncements.

This sort of thing is damaging to both environment and economy, when protectionist forces use excuses like food miles to lobby for reduction of food imports, when, for example, New Zealand lamb or Spanish tomatoes on the shelf in the UK cost less CO2 than domestic production.

Unsurprising in all this is the burying of parts (the A1 scenarios) of the well researched Stern report, commissioned by the Treasury, and published last year -- the ones that point out that with trade and economic growth, as problems bite, the vastly richer generation to come would be able to mitigate out of the petty cash.

reason said...

... the ones that point out that with trade and economic growth, as problems bite, the vastly richer generation to come would be able to mitigate out of the petty cash.

Even if it is true (and I'm not so sure, are you sure that they will mitigate. History isn't convincing.

David Brin said...

Well, well. I certainly did leave out Nonsense Talking Point Number Eleven. Thanks Steve for reminding us that there actually are people who, despite not a single example to point to, from across human history, nevertheless blithely shrug and say "the future will automatically fix all this and save us.

Um, last I heard, the whole notion of the Enlightenment/Modernist agenda and experiment was to MAKE a better future. Finially kicking our prefrontal lobes into high gear and earning our descendants' gratitude.

By beaing what Jonas Salk recommended as the top goal of any civilization; to be good ancestors.

Point #11 is like those cryonics guys, putting some money in T Bills and expecting to be revived, in a century, all rich n' stuff.

Har! Dig it. Whether those future folk revive you will depend a lot on whether you seem (in their retrospect) to have been the kind of guy they want to have around. And that will depend on how hard you worked to make things better for them.

Anonymous said...

I think the essay is good as it is.

On another note Brin have you seen this article?

Disturbing in many ways and makes me wonder about your Manchurian scenario coming from the Christian Right.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Vonnegut said something scary on the subject a year or so before he died.

He said (I'm paraphrasing):

"It's too late. We're fucked."

David Brin said...

Brother Doug, that sure is a scary-fascinating truthout article - plus background - about "end time Christians." Interestingly, they, too, create a tableau of rationalizations that are just as inherently contradictory as climate change deniers in their own context.

Indeed, one of the problems of the Modernist community is that it consists of people who find these retro-romantics SO bizarre that we never ponder the possibility of dealing with them on their own ground...

...e.g. by showing the RELIGIOUS inconsistencies and betrayals of their own fundamental premises.

It's much like my own relentless urging that we must reach out to "decent conservatives" by forcing them to recognize that their supposed allies are enemies of civilization. THAT is where we have real potential for winning and ending culture war.

In the Truthout article is a gem of staggering significance.

In May 2007, the Inter Press Service reported that Admiral William J. Fallon, who was slated to become the Central Command chief on March 16, had sent a message to the Defense Department in mid-February, opposing any further US naval buildup in the . The news article said Fallon squelched an administration effort to send a third carrier strike group to the Gulf. That would have brought the US naval presence up to the same level as during the US air campaign against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, the report said. It continued: "A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran 'will not happen on my watch.' Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, 'You know what choices I have. I'm a professional.' Fallon said that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, "There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box."

While I am glad to see my own rant about this proved... that we have just one hope to bridge the next two years and it is in the crewcut types of the officer corps...

,,,nevertheless, I wish Fallon had stayed more cagey. The Navy is the one, last, island of complete readiness and full competence, relatively unpurged and uncowed by the villains. I do not want to see men like this become targets.

David Brin said...

Actually, the Truthout article, while scary, does not show the "end time Christians" being true "manchurians."

To be manchurian (in this context) a group must actually wish for the destruction of the thing they have been entrusted to defend. For the sake of external, hostile masters. Moreover, I am not talking about the Constitution (which Bush is undermining, having been sworn to defend it) but the United States in general, along with Western Civilization.

While they certainly want to end the Enlightenment and all it stands for, I doubt any of the loony-fundies actually want to see the national entity called the United States - or American power in the world - demolished. Except in the context of a final, triumphant evapotation of all human institutions at the end of days.

No, this is just another variant on the Standard Model, which posits that these guys are loonie, venal, greedy, insatiable, incompetent, dogmatic morons.

Some people emphasize the incompetent portion of the Standard Model. Others the dogmatic portion. e.g. the Truthout author. But it's all variations.

No, the "manchurian alternative explanation" really calls for a break from the standard model in a fundamental way.

It offers an explanation for the simple fact that almost NONE of the actions taken by the administration have actually benefited the United States, at any level. Indeed, except when some act of insatiable greed happens to coincide with national interest, the nation's strength and ability to cope have been undermined relentlessly.

A score so perfect that incompetence and dogmatism and all the rest seem strained to explain it.

Agin, I do not hold to this officially. I cannot, and keep any sense of hope. Because if it is true, then people like Admiral Fallon face an almost impossible job of keeping us alive.

NoOne said...

Ever so often, David returns to his paranoid conspiracy theme - that the staggering incompetence on display by the Bush administration and their cohorts has a deeper, more sinister Manchurian candidate explanation. And just as often, David retreats to labeling this position as "just contrarian" when we all shout in dismay that this position is excessively paranoid - which of course doesn't mean that it can't be true.

While I have not spent enough time on this forum to see if the following alternative explanation has received enough net time, I must ask: Could an alternative explanation be that something like a computer program, or perhaps a virus (or even the now discredited meme) is active in this case? If a Manchurian candidate computer program is running in say 25% of the US population - in our loonie, fundie friends and neighbors - they wouldn't be aware of it. Instead, they'd be executing it like lemmings. This alternative explanation requires no paranoid conspiracy theory to sustain it but comes at the cost of positing a certain kind of computer program that say, leads to the destruction of empires - Greek, Roman, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, British and now American.

David Brin said...

One of the fundamentals in all of this has been the destruction of our alliances.

When this administration took office - and especially just after 9/11 - America was stunningly popular.

We had just finished the most successful "pax" intervention in all of history, stepping into a Balkans quagmire that had Europeans wringing their hands in despair and cynical resignation. "Nothing can be done about the Balkans" they moaned... but finally gave in to our quietly insistent diplomacy and let the president order a skilled, professional police action...

...that transformed Europe utterly in weeks, giving it peace for the first time in 4,000 years, at minimal cost to our budget, readiness or prestige and at the cost of zero American lives lost.

Did I say prestige? It was our high water mark. There was nothing America couldn't do. Heck, after Bosnia/Kosovo, our popularity went up in the Muslim World!

Our reserves of goodwill were varied, of course, with some zones of grouchiness, here and there. All through the 1990s, there were meetings held, in Paris, Moscow and Beijing, with the theme "What can be done about preventing a unipolar, America-led world?"

Nobody came.

It was our high water mark. Despite the fluke of 9/11... a fluke calamity that New Yorkers and Blue America were willing to take the right way - by rolling with the punch, resiliently... respect and awe for American power were at their peak. Our finances, our readiness, our science, our international popularity, the competence of our professionals and the vigor of our confident people appeared unmatchable.

Even the first response to 9/11... unleashing an already-existing plan against the criminal Taliban regime... showed us at our best. Utterly calm and skilled... and all of our allies (most of the world) stepped up beside us.

No more. We are now pariahs, despised almost everywhere. I will give Bush Albania. Iraq has managed to deplete our readiness, destroy our reserves, destroy our popularity, deplete our finances, radicalize our cultural enemies and ABOVE ALL sour our allies on a world led by a boorish, thuggish, incompetent Pax Americana.

Those meetings - "What to do about America" - are still being held. Only now the rooms and conference centers are packed!

And here's the point. There was no policy reason why the neocons and other Cheneykleps should have acted so relentlessly and deliberately to offend every friend of ours, across the planet. Not even insatiable robbery of our treasury or dogmatic, end-of-days religiosity can explain why they have ham handedly driven off our allies and ruined the one advantage America always had, above all others.

Our popularity.

Yes, yes. There is a Standard Model explanation for this. Your typical Red Republican despises furriners and gets off on digging and offending them. Tell such people that Ambassador Bolton is universally despised at the UN and they will nod and say "Good!"

And then deny that anything has happened to our world standing, at all. Just as they will insist that the image of the US floundering futilely in a land-quagmire in Asia deters enemies with an image of "streangth". (While not one of our brigades has trained for REAL war in over half a decade.)

Yes, yes. The destruction of our alliances does fit into the Standard Model... if you squeeze and prod and push, and assume that millions of our neighbors are absolute idiots. And yet...

...and yet, it seems so lame. This administration has systematically dismantled a unipolar world, led (by planet-wide consensus) by a supremely competent and highly popular Pax Americana... all because of a little snarling xenophobia nursed by a minority of radical goppers in its base?

No. The Standard Model is very weak, here. The effort to demolish US leadership and popularity has been too thorough, deliberate and relentless.

Even if you won't ponder "manchurian" explanations, you still have to do better.

Maybe it's treason by feral computer programs, after all.

Mark Brown said...

Kind of scary, like the ultra ending of the Asimov (foundation)"Trilogy" {actually a series of about 19 books by the end) that our Dr Brin/Greg Bear and The third B did ...
in which the former (alien) population (just) became/mutated into electrons.

Are the electrons on Jim?
(shades of DanRather?!)

yeah, I say it's definitely a computer meme/virus that's causing EVERYTHING...

That's the ticket!

Anonymous said...

Ok I will give my best try at a Manchurian scenario because it is an interesting exercise, but you are starting to scare me Brin.

I would say that some Saudis theoretically have an interest in a Manchurian scenario if they could pull it off.

It could be the case that some nation wants the us to be destabilized to the point where a dictator/emperor can step in and take over. Shades of Caesar and the end of the roman republic come to mind. The Muslim countries have a real problem with women becoming better educated and demanding of equal rights and Homosexuals becoming less intimidated. What better way to keep them down than by destroying the symbol of the enlightenment that they hate and turning it into a fascist clone of Iraq or Russia with your 80 year long time friends in charge?

The problem with this idea is that just about every Muslim country tried to dissuade us from going into Iraq, and everyone in the US now hates the Bush family.

But the death of that idea is that Iraq is still pumping 2 million barrels of oil a day! And the new Iraq oil law gives 70% profits to the American companies in charge of the production. That gives at my estimate profits of 98 million per day with oil at 70 a barrel on the oil alone! That’s not even counting the doubled profits of the refinery side. I suspect the actual total pumped is even higher because it is widely reported that much is stolen by corrupt officials and insurgents.

Plus every US solder or contractor is using 16 gallions of gas a day more than they would in peace time. Sounds like a great deal for the oil companys.

So the standard oil greed/end times fundamentalist/imperial overstretch model still looks more plausible. But it would be a great idea for a novel, nugde nudge, wink, wink.

You can check out the oil production numbers here from Department of Energy estimates :

Steve Gilham said...

>>And that will depend on how hard you worked to make things better for them.

My point exactly. What we have to do now is invest our capital (in its most general form) wisely so as to make things better. And, unless you make some pretty bizarre assumptions about discount rates, the best thing to do is growth now, so that the total loss of GDP is minimized over time.

Especially, getting China and India over their current carbon intensive situation is going to mean pushing through an inevitable peak in emissions as fast as possible, to a point where they can afford (in human capital terms as well as pure cash) to increase costs by means like sequestration at source. For those nations, advocating anything other than global economic growth sounds very much like advocating us all shivering in the dark.

David Brin said...

Doug, you are trying hard. But note that your scenario is still a version (albeit extreme) of the Standard Model! One in which the aim is to transform America from n enlightenment republic to a quasi-feudal oligarchy-run dictatorship.

That STILL posits that the intent is for America to stay healthy... a basic goal which this administration has undermined at every opportunity, even when no clear motive seems apparent.

Mind you, Standard Model explanations suffice if you posit that greed, dogmatism and stupidity prevail among all but a very small inner corps, within this cult/cabal. Sure, rapacious and insatiable oil barons and no-bid, crony-contract military support service companies and all the other cronies-of-the-king are grabbing and stuffing their maws like mad... making Adam Smith moan from market heaven...

...but most of these raving loony cheating morons still actually think they love America.

The thing about a manchurian scenario is that it does not require very many inner conspirators. It just requires that they be well-placed... and skilled at mixing and matching and allocating power to - e raving loony cheating morons.

The external group you mention might use their trillions toward the classic methodology of subornation in order to destroy a civilization that they (in their own words) deeply despise. Interestingly, That program would entail also maximizing short term oil revenues. Say, by stymie-ing any moves toward energy efficiency.

Anonymous said...

Someone asserted that global warming is due to the sun's heat increasing.

An article for non-scientists in Newsweek clearly demonstrates why this is not the case, even though 83% of their survey respondents said that was a contributor to global warming and how the warming follows patterns that you would expect if the source were anthropogenic. And really, does it matter? The costs to the world economy will be the same regardless of if it is anthropogenic or not, so we need to respond where we can. As Newsweek said, "But that raises a question for those who emphasize nature's contributions to global warming and other aspects of climate change. Let's suppose that those are nudging the climate toward worse storms and more droughts and more heat waves, just as greenhouse gases are. In that case, you'd think the world would want to control the causes of global warming that it can. At last check, no one had figured out how to turn down the sun."

And to Steve's point about discount rate, without seeing your assumptions I can only guess, but I guess that you are assuming a constant cost of rectification. The problem is that the longer we wait to begin to mitigate, the more rapidly the rate of change of the expense increases. If you show your math, we can discuss that further without guesses and assertions.

Steve Gilham said...

As noted, I have been citing the Report of the Stern Review on the economics of climate change commissioned by HM Treasury -- a sober piece of work by reputable economists that takes, as given the anthropogenic model. The document can be found on the HM Treasury web site.

I do encourage you to look at it. In particular, the A1 scenarios from there make very interesting reading -- they are the future that I think we all would want to aim for. Alas, as they don't support the knee-jerk reactions of the Green Fascist movement (and the New Aristocracy they are seeking), these scenarios have been rather ignored.

I see behind the EU greenwash the same sort of pyramidal tendencies that David does behind the US administration's position of polar opposition.

Steve Gilham said...

Afterthought -- more on the IPCC scenarios underlying the Stern Report here

This gives a bit more bandwidth to the inconvenient scenarios that you can see being moved out of the way to meet Stern's foreordained conclusion.

reason said...

why do you think that GDP is the relevant measure here? This is not a flippant question, you must be aware of the limitations of GDP, it is not a good measure of net welfare or net progress or even net ability to respond to a particular crisis.

Anonymous said...

1) Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science" is carefully documented and well worth reading., as is his more recent "Storm World".

2) As for knowing what kind of science to do, technology that helps us measure Earth's climate would be especially worthy. However, in the last few years NASA has been cancelling such things:
This may relate to 1).

3) There is a substantial web of thinktanks, PR agencies, and lobbyists who do everything possible to fight recognition of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and deny the accumulating science. The "deniers" are probably better organized than the other extreme ("alarmists") who have tended to get ahead of the science or perhaps exaggerate it. Rational thinkers, including most scientists, form a third group.

Deniers prefer to be called skeptics, and try to conflate concerned scientists with real alarmists. Hence:
Google: james hansen alarmist
generates 64K hits.

In some cases, the same people:
- fought recognition of smoking/cacner link, paid for by RJ Reynolds, etc.
[Allan Brandt's "The Cigarette Century" is a good study).
- fought recognition of CFC/ozone depletion
- fight environmental regulations
- fight recognition of AGW

Unsurprisingly, some are funded by ExxonMobil, the Western Fuels Association, and various right-wind foundations, and the tactics of confusion are well-honed.

To name a few: George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Fraser Institute, SEPP, etc, etc. Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz are especially well-known, but there are plenty more.

David: you should talk to Naomi Oreskes:
She's a Prof of history&science @ UCSD, wrote a famous article in Science on the literature of global warming, and gave a terrific talk at Stanford on
"Cold War Scientists and Global Warming", detailing some of the weird ideological history.
That was a lively talk, and I hope she turns it into a book.

4) For good climate *science* blogging, is probably the best single resource.

Cheers (and I've always enjoyed your books).