The Moral Calculation is the Right Calculation

Here is a powerful response to climate action skeptic Jim Manzi by Ryan Avent as featured by Andrew Sullivan:

I’ll reiterate again that a) the costs of the legislation are likely overstated, b) Manzi is assuming that there will be no ancillary benefits to the legislation, and c) Manzi is assuming that after this legislation is passed there is no change in global warming policy in America thereafter, ever, for the next century. I don’t have a problem with people using Manzi’s analysis as a datapoint to consider in determining how they feel about Waxman-Markey, but you’d have to check your common sense at the door to buy his interpretation of it. You’d have to assume that the uncertain costs of an unprecedented climatic shift are likely to be no big deal and well within our ability to handle, while the rather mundane use of government policy to trim a bit off of consumption in an effort to prevent us from killing hundreds of millions of people is bound to be totally debilitating.

For climate action skeptics that believe in global warming it always comes down to assuming energy consumption change will be terribly expensive and Climate Change will be basically benign. Neither assumption is grounded in the relevant research.

Yet it speaks to a lot of smart people, like Andrew Sullivan, because the damage of Climate Change can be hard to put into numbers. Here’s Sullivan in the same post as above:

I’m fairly sympathetic to Manzi’s analysis and have yet to see a blogger forcefully counter his mathematical argument with another mathematical argument.

When faced with huge economic and climate uncertainties, it’s hard for me to come down forcefully one way or the other. I appreciate that obliterating the planet is a a smidge bigger risk than spending too much money, but I worry about the unintended consequences of regulation, and there are diminishing returns from playing the world destruction card if your proposed legislation isn’t going to fix the problem.

Here’s the thing, having math in your argument doesn’t make it a mathematical argument anymore then having citations makes a Michael Crichton novel a doctoral thesis. Manzi’s argument is a not a detailed cost benefit analysis of addressing Climate Change. It’s a slap dash, back of the envelope calculation of other researchers’ numbers fed into a spreadsheet. His methodology is based on faulty assumptions and expectations. The organization who’s numbers he references has repeatedly issued reports saying we should address Climate Change. And worst Manzi breezily disregards the economically small, but in humanitarian terms catastrophic, effects of Climate Change. A windfall profit tax on oil companies would likely be more economically costly then say firebombing Tanzania, but nobody faced with the two choices would say we should start loading up the bombs.

That’s the scourge of numbers, if you fail to control for a lurking variable you’re a disgrace, if you fail to factor in the deaths and displacement of millions then you’re serious analyst who’s ideas can only challenged in the form of charts and numbers.

-Chris

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