Climate Change: Who Will Pay the Costs?

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 17, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

Today’s post on ethics is written by Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)


The debate over global warming is typically presented (admittedly simplistically) as a debate between two factions.

One faction is the, “OMG, we are all going to die if we don’t stop global warming now!” faction.

They are opposed by the, “Warming, schwarming, we have nothing to worry about or, if there is, there’s nothing we can do about it,” faction.

This is the wrong frame. It is like me deciding for you if a movie is worth going to and, on the basis of my decision, dictating whether you will or will not see the movie. Agents who insist on this type of power are still governed by the fact that they act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs, and will dictate you movie-watching activities accordingly.

The question should be, “Who should pay those costs?”

An agent goes to the gas station and purchase $40 worth of gas. She gives the clerk a $20 bill and a card that allows the clerk to draw the other $20 out of some random bank account. It simply picks an account at random and subtracts the cost from it.

One of the consequences of this is that agents will end up buying a lot more gas then they would have if they had to pay the whole price. They will purchase gas that has a $40 total cost that provides the agents with only $25 worth of benefit. Overall, people are worse off.

Generally, agents have reason to object to such a system. While this agent is buying gas and draining the bank accounts of others, other people are also buying gas and taking the money out of his account. If this threat is relatively equal – if his chance of losing $20 to somebody else’s trivial purpose is comparable to his taking $20 from others for his trivial purposes, where money is the only measure of his concern, he has a self-interested in ending the practice. He will have to give up the $40 purchase of gas that has a value to him of $25 (for which he realizing $5 of increased benefit), but he will save the $20 that others drain from his account. And the $20 savings is greater than the $5 lost benefit.

But what happens when the community of gas buyers is much smaller than the community of account holders? In this case, the gas buyers will tend to benefit, inflicting much greater costs on those who cannot buy gas. They will be taking more out of the accounts of others then they will be losing as a result of the purchases made by others.

What happens if the community of gas buyers is smaller because they tend to be relatively wealthier? In this case, you have a wealth transfer scheme whereby those with money are able to force the poor to pay huge (relative) costs for trivial benefits. The $20 drain is taken from the poor so that the wealthy can acquire $5 worth of benefit.

What happens where the costs are not paid in terms in cash withdrawn from accounts, but in the value of land and other property, or the value of the health of those affected, or even the value of the lives lost? Well, in this case, the relatively wealthy will have a way to obtain their $5 worth of benefits by forcing the relatively poor to sacrifice the value of their land, property, health, and life.

What happens when the political apparatus is such that only the relatively wealthy are given a vote in the decision-making process, while the relatively poor have absolutely no power in the legislatures that are making these decisions? Well, in this case, we can expect the political process to favor the small benefit to the relatively wealthy over the exceptional costs of the trivially poor.

This is what I see in the global warming debate. I see relatively wealthy people (in global terms, where billions live on less than $100 per month) inflicting huge costs on others in terms of the destruction of their life, health, and property, for the sake of activities they would abandon as trivial if not for the fact that they are able to push the costs onto others – and, for the most part – others who have no voice in the decisions that affect them.

Of course, the people who are being asked to pay those costs have an incentive in trivializing those costs, while such a system also gives others an incentive to claim themselves to be among the harmed (and entitled to compensation) when they are not harmed, or to exaggerate the value of the harms inflicted on them. While this is a serious problem, it is a problem in all matters of this type and provides no reason to treat the issue of global warming any differently. This is a serious problem that demands that institutions be created that at least have some hope at getting at the facts of the matter. It is not an argument for ignoring the issue and allowing the relatively wealthy to impose costs on the relatively poor at will.

If I may, I would like to take a moment to examine the specific claim that inspired these comments. It is the claim – which I have heard from more than one source – that sea-level rise will happen so slowly that the costs will be trivial. There will be more than enough time for people to migrate to higher ground. It is not as if a huge tsunami is going to hit and, in a matter of minutes, the sea-level is going to rise by a certain height.

This is not a realistic view of the situation.

What is going to happen with a three-foot rise in sea-level is that a house that, at one time would have been one foot above the high-water mark when a hurricane comes ashore will suffer the destruction of two feet of water instead.

An office building that would have had to stand up to the current of a three-foot current of water when a tsunami comes ashore (and might have withstood that current) will have to endure a six-foot current instead (and may fail).

A rogue wave that comes on shore after a winter storm at sea that would have splashed against a house will demolish it instead.

Water that would have, at one time, peaked two feet below the levee that is keeping the sea out of the city will instead flow over the top of (and perhaps destroy) the levee instead.

People can’t pick up their property and move it a few feet upstream as the sea level slowly rises. That property is going to stay put. It will be destroyed – not slowly as the water level creeps up one slow inch at a time, but rapidly when an extreme event destroys or damages what that same extreme event would have left untouched in the past.

Even if people are able to avoid these costs, avoidance is not free. A city can build higher and higher levees, but they have to pay to do so – and only if the geography allows it. This might be a bit difficult around places like Shanghai and Miami.

The possibility of cost avoidance is still one in which the relatively wealthy are obtaining relatively trivial benefits for themselves by forcing grater costs – the costs of avoidance – on others. A person might have an option to spend $10 to avoid a $20 drain on their bank account, but they would still suffer the $10 cost of avoidance by those who are imposing this cost to obtain a $5 benefit.

You’re telling the poor family in Bangladesh or Shanghai (and China is still a very poor country, relatively speaking) that all he and his family needs is to do is to move upstream – several tens of miles away in many cases. And is there empty land waiting for them up there? Or are you instead going to force crowding (and corresponding higher land prices) on the upstream population as you force migration on the downstream population?

They will stay in their property until that typhoon or cyclone or tsunami comes through and destroys it, and relief agencies gather up the survivors and relocate them, or aid them in relocating themselves.

We also have to consider the fact that, when it comes to paying the costs of avoidance, the relatively wealthy have more options than the relatively poor. You can tell somebody that, for the sake of (say) a $10 investment they avoid a $20 cost. However, what happens if they do not have $10 to invest? In that case, they are forced to suffer a $20 cost that a person with $10 to invest can avoid.

Perhaps the people who are causing the $20 worth of harm would rather pay $10 so that the people they affect can avoid those harms. However, that is not the option we are giving them. We are giving them the option to donate $10 to avoid harm as an act of charity, or keep the $10 in their own pocket and force those they harm to suffer the full cost. There seem to be a great many people who prefer keeping the $10 and forcing the full $20 cost on their victims.

Perhaps the users of fossil fuels will like to pay the lesser costs of helping the desperately poor avoid the greater costs of sea-level rise. However, the incentive now is not for them to pay either the lower cost of avoidance or the greater cost of actual harm. The options we give them today is to pay nothing or to pay the lesser cost of avoidance. In which case, many of them choose to pay nothing, and leave the greater harms actually suffered as a result for others to pay.

Keep in mind, I am using the $10 and $20 only for illustrative purposes. In fact, we are not talking about the loss of $10 or $20. We are talking about the potential destruction of life, health, and property by hundreds of millions of the most desperately poor.

This, then, is my approach to the question of global warming. I am not predicting what the total costs will be or whether it is more or less worthwhile to avoid those costs. I am simply arguing for the application of a principle that those who create the costs – whatever they are – should pay for it. Even if the costs turn out to be relatively minor, and the benefits worth the costs, those who obtain the benefits should be compensating those who suffer the loss for the harms done.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

juhou March 17, 2011 at 5:10 am

Enjoyed the post Alonzo.

You’re talking about externalities and I think there is a lot of debate about them in economics. You should remember that the industries that cause climate change also have positive externalities in example cheaper energy prices and combatting climate change without taking these into account might result in destruction of lifes through poverty, unemployment, etc. This is especially relevant in developing nations which while developing their economies usually become major polluters in the process but at the same time the lives of the poor people there become better and better.

I can’t see any easy solution but it is for sure that most of the cost of combatting climate change have to be payed by the rich countries and it seems that there is not political will anywhere to do that.


juhou March 17, 2011 at 6:49 am

Omg, I’m an idiot. Energy prices are of course not real externalities by definition. Anyway those kind of basic things should be taken into account while assessing the cost of preventing climate change. Human lives will be destroyed if they are not taken into account.


David Marshall March 17, 2011 at 9:30 am

The premises here are dubious on many levels.

First of all, the UN predicts a rise of from 7 inches to 2 feet by 2100, not 3 feet.

Secondly, everyone who lives by the sea, knows that bulkheads, and homes, are constantly being rebuilt, anyway. Who is not going to reinforce a bulkhead even once in 90 years? It is no big deal to build it a few feet higher.

Third, who benefits from increased use of oil? The poor! China is “still a poor country,” the blogger claims. Not really. Chinese are buying cars by the tens of millions. They are burning coal by the millions of tons. They just blew past the US in CO2 production, without even waving as they passed us.

Shanghai is rich. It has plenty of money to build whatever levees it needs. (Which I don’t think will be much. Checking Google Earth, and having been to Shanghai many times, most of the city is between 20 and 60 feet above sea level, and is not subject to “rogue waves.”)

The fact that the blogger is worried about Shanghai, shows the ignorance of geography that seems typical of AGW proponents.

In reality, AGW hysteria, which feeds on such ignorance, is the greater danger for much of the 3rd World.


David Marshall March 17, 2011 at 9:37 am

By the way, on the general gullibility of many skeptics when it comes to such matters, involving both AGW and Intelligent Design, see my article posted a few days ago, “Why Are Americans Scientifically Precocious? Is Michael Behe Responsible?”

But the real issue here may be geography. I engaged in lengthy debate with some of the people in the thread mentioned, and found they would often make sweeping claims about how such and such a territory was about to be swallowed up by the sea, without even bothering to check its elevation above sea level.


David Marshall March 17, 2011 at 9:45 am

For example, consider this ridiculous map Luke uses. It shows most of the State of Louisiana under water “after global warming.”

Some of those areas shown flooded are 300 hundred feet above sea level, and the forecast is for between 7 inches and 2 feet of rise in the next 90 years! I know people of all persuasions can be gullible, but I see so much of this among skeptics, that I am beginning to wonder if it might not fully explain their skepticism.


Martin March 17, 2011 at 10:08 am


It’s true that there is a lot of incorrect hype on the AGW side. Like Luke’s map, for instance, which would only come true if a large portion of Greenland melted, which would take centuries to millenia at sustained temperatures. Stuff like this only serves to fuel the global warming “skeptic’s” theory that it’s all just a bunch of hysteria


As usual, much of this hype is due to the effect of the media distorting scientific data:

The media feeds on hype, and always distorts things. If you turn to the peer-reviewed resources, you will find plenty of real evidence that flooding, droughts, and other changes in land use are going to be a real problem for much of the developing world in the coming century.

The problem is not just rising sea levels, but also the shift that will occur in many areas as land can no longer support the populations and we have a massive refugee situation on our hands.


Dave March 17, 2011 at 10:28 am

I reject atheism because atheism has NOTHING to offer.


juhou March 17, 2011 at 10:31 am

Clarifying my point a bit. The cost benefit analysis of climate change should also take into account that climate change is part of the cost of those industries which rely on carbon and other climate change related emissions. Therefore the profits and benefits of these industries have to be put against the cost of these industries plus the cost of climate change. Cost is generally reflected in the price but in the case of climate change that particular cost wont’ be reflected in the price because it is an externality.

Therefore the right cause of action is to assess the cost of climate change relying on estimates of current data and raise the cost of carbon (and other) emissions to be on the level of actual cost. That is probably best done by a tax. The profits of that tax should than be redistributed to help those who suffer from climate change especially taking into account those who live in poorer nations.

Since the government action is not sufficient I think the only moral course of action for any individual would be to give to charity the amount they estimate as their responsibility for climate change. (It’s almost like the original sin :).


cl March 17, 2011 at 10:33 am

The debate over global warming is typically presented (admittedly simplistically) as a debate between two factions.

As is nearly every other debate in Western culture! It’s called intellectual polarization. Personally, I think Guatama the Buddha was onto something with all that talk about middle ground and whatnot, but that’s just me…

David Marshall,

Excellent smackdown.

The fact that the blogger is worried about Shanghai, shows the ignorance of geography that seems typical of AGW proponents.

In my experience, Fyfe is often willing to “shoot from the hip” when it supports his arguments. I’ve found this especially true in his arguments for desirism. For example, his claim that the Greeks were “probably wrong” about pederasty, or his claim that “we” would be “better off” without “trash TV” and “spectator sports.” No conclusive evidence accompanied either of those claims.


The media feeds on hype, and always distorts things.

While I’m hesitant over the qualifier always, I do agree that media often feeds on hype and distorts things. However, as self-proclaimed “critical thinkers,” Luke and Alonzo’s job is to find and dispel these distortions, not simply re-feed them to us. As David Marshall demonstrated, it wouldn’t have taken much effort.


David Marshall March 17, 2011 at 10:44 am

Martin: Fair enough, and of course peer-review articles ARE generally better than what you get from the Media. But I’ve come across some really dubious claims about AGW that SEEM to have gotten by peer reviewing — like Ai Guodai’s claim that the percent of desert in the world has increased by some 3 times over the past few decades, leading one intelligent but map-happy poster to argue 70% of the earth’s land surface will be desert by 2050. I looked carefully at a variety of historical records, and found the whole thing pretty unlikely.

Maybe, to be fair, we need one another — atheists and Christians, liberals and conservatives –to keep each other honest. That’s what I like to think, when the sun is out and shining, like today.


Martin March 17, 2011 at 11:39 am

David, don’t take this the wrong way, but I seriously doubt you can refute a doctor of atmospheric science for NCAR by “looking at some historical data” and proclaiming that it “seems unlikely to me.”

When it comes to quantum physics, geology, cosmology, etc, everyone is content to let the experts speak. But as soon as climate science (one of the most complex sciences known to man) comes along, suddenly granny down the street thinks she can look at a graph and refute all of NASA, NOAA, every climate scientist on the planet (who, apparently, are all complete morons), and the entire IPCC AR4 report.

There is so much dreck about climate science on the Internet that you should literally not believe anything you read at all, unless it’s from an authoritative source, generally that ends with .edu. Or


PDH March 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Dave wrote,

I reject atheism because atheism has NOTHING to offer.  

Excellent non sequitur there, Dave. What did you want, anyway? A gift basket?


mpg March 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Dave wrote,
Excellent non sequitur there, Dave. What did you want, anyway? A gift basket?  

Was gonna say much the same thing. Utter non-sequitur.


David Marshall March 17, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Martin: You have every right to be skeptical. But I’m actually quite used to taking on people in areas in which they are supposed to be experts, and showing (to the satisfaction of more careful experts) that they are wrong. My books and articles have a long string of endorsements to that effect; everyone has to be good at something. (A man with a similiar skill was Andrew Lang.)

Ai Guodai’s errors were essentially geographical and historical, which are fields I feel comfortable operating in. I’d link you to the discussion, but it seems to be buried in some other, longer discussion. Maybe I’ll gather the various pieces of evidence against his thesis, and put it in a single blog, where I can direct people who think the world is turning into a desert.


G-Dub B March 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Louisiana was already under water once, and we’re fine.

For example, consider this ridiculous map Luke uses. It shows most of the State of Louisiana under water “after global warming.”


Alex SL March 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm

> When it comes to quantum physics, geology, cosmology, etc, everyone is content to let the experts speak. But as soon as climate science (one of the most complex sciences known to man) comes along, suddenly granny down the street thinks she can look at a graph and refute all of NASA, NOAA, every climate scientist on the planet (who, apparently, are all complete morons), and the entire IPCC AR4 report.

Nice one!

However, I believe the above analysis fails for a different reason. It assumes that there is a box of rich people using fossil fuels and a box of poor people only suffering the consequences. Admittedly, of course Joe Average American leaves a much larger ecological footprint than Anoop Average Indian, but have you ever looked at traffic in any major Indian city? We are all together shooting into our own feet, only some of us use bigger bullets. It thus may make more sense to analyze the issue with some kind of tragedy of the commons-like approach, or to stress the fact that costs are externalized into the future and onto future generations of humans.


Eric March 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Patrick –
When it comes to quantum physics, geology, cosmology, etc, everyone is content to let the experts speak. But as soon as climate science (one of the most complex sciences known to man) comes along, suddenly granny down the street thinks she can look at a graph and refute all of NASA, NOAA, every climate scientist on the planet (who, apparently, are all complete morons), and the entire IPCC AR4 report.

Well said!


Luke Muehlhauser March 17, 2011 at 9:04 pm

The alt text of the image is auto-generated from the file name, which is whatever pops into my head when I’m downloading it so that I can find it 10 seconds later when I upload it. I’m not arguing that Louisiana will be underwater in a century. Nor am I trying to be vague about “after global warming.” Please ignore the image title; it’s not the point. I’m not XKCD.


Lorkas March 17, 2011 at 9:06 pm

When it comes to quantum physics, geology, cosmology, etc, everyone is content to let the experts speak. But as soon as climate science (one of the most complex sciences known to man) comes along, suddenly granny down the street thinks she can look at a graph and refute all of NASA, NOAA, every climate scientist on the planet (who, apparently, are all complete morons), and the entire IPCC AR4 report.

I always say the same thing about the theory of evolution, which also deals in extremely complex systems. Probably because these are extremely complex systems that seem (to the uneducated) to be very simple, combined with the fact that these are both highly politicized scientific issues.


David Marshall March 17, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I think what is also going on here, is that scientists are often granted so much credit, that in some cases it goes to their heads, and they forget the limits of their own expertise. Granny probably does know more about a lot of the subjects some famous scientists pontificate on, than they do. In fact, I wrote a book defending Granny.


Martin March 17, 2011 at 9:53 pm


I think what is also going on here, is that scientists are often granted so much credit

It’s not scientists who are granted credit, but experts in a particular field.

When Dawkins fights creationism, he is the one who knows what he is talking about not because he is a scientist but because he is a professor of biology. On the other hand, when Ed Feser criticizes Dawkins for not even remotely understanding Aquinas’ Five Ways, then he is the one who knows what he is talking about because he is a professor of Thomism.

I.e., if an amateur comes along and finds the polar opposite of what most experts in that particular field find, then the probability that the amateur has not understood something is much, much higher than the probability that thousands of experts have not understood something.


Luke Muehlhauser March 17, 2011 at 10:21 pm

I changed the image at the top of the post because apparently people were distracted by it.


mopey March 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm

I realize that it is beside the point, but I’m interested why many theists tend to reject AGW. If this is true to any extent, is it mere coincidence?


Rufus March 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm

My impression is NOT that the climate-change skeptic thinks she is smarter than the experts. Rather, she questions the motives behind the research — that the science is agenda driven, that funding goes to researchers who maintain the dominant paradigm, and that scientists interpret or even fix the data to fit their theory, all while dissenting scientists are locked out, rejected from the journals, and kept from attaining tenure (I am talking about impressions here, not facts). I think if you ask the average climate change skeptic, he or she would say that it is not the intelligence of the scientist that calls the research into question, but the neutrality of the scientists Why? I suppose because they see it fitting in with leftist critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Some even suspect something sinister, i.e. that some elite group of people are suggesting there are just too many humans infecting the planet and that the population must be brought under control. I doubt the average granny thinks she is more intelligent than an MIT grad student working on her dissertation in climate change. Granny is more concerned with the ramifications of the research. Perhaps scientists have not done a great job with their public image and public realtions. Their work is like a golden tablet with funny symbols on it and only they possess the cipher to tell the rest of us what it means. “Who these scientists? ” “Are they to be trusted?” “Aren’t they a bunch of hyper-competitive, rat-killing, border-line sociopaths who will do anything for recognition and funding?” “Aren’t they a bunch of godless atheists who have no moral foundation?” I think this is plausibly why there are climate change skeptics.

If utilitarians want to promote more responsible behavior, I think transparency and better communication with the public is needed. And better communication should not amount to: “Hey look at how stupid and uninformed people who disagree with us are.”
(Disclaimer: I am not assenting to any of these views or suggesting that scientists are evil per se. I am suggesting an alternative to “Granny thinks she is smarter than NASA,” i.e. “it’s an evil conspiracy, man”.)


Curt March 18, 2011 at 6:27 am

Atheist, (and or)Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Whatever(except Randians), everyone who claims to be interested in ethics and leading an ethical life says that when making a decision we should think not just of ourselves but how our decisions effect others. In thinking of others we are suppossed to be willing to be to some extent unselfish. In short to be fair. Unfortunately this vague advice is not very helpful in real life. When it comes to exactly how unselfish a person should be humans are divided in to a continuim (spectrum) of opinions. Then opinions get further divided when one has to consider the facts of the situation as there is seldom agreement over what the facts are.
It is much easier when you can study something in a labratory and control all of the variables.
What I propose not that it counts for anything as the only way it could be implemented is if I had a multidudes of fanatical followers at my disposale is the following. That a target of world consumption of oil of 20 million barrels per day world wide be achieved by 2025. That world coal consumption be limited to the energy equivilant of 20 million barrels of oil by 2025. If an effective way can be found to sequester the CO2 these figures can naturally be adjusted. Each the allocation to each country will be based on population. A very under developed country like Chad could sell the portion of its allocation that it could not use to a more industrial country like Germany or Canada.
Just think when the second world war was fought world energy consumption of oil was 6 million barrels a day. No one was starving and the oil was being used to fight a war not meet human needs for food clothing and shelter. Of course we were also burning coal then too. Proportionly no doubt more but I would be surprised if it was at a per capita world wide use higher than today.
Human needs are finite but human wants are infinite unless they are controlled…………
………….controlled by a Confuscian dictator. That might be a reference to myself. This dictator has decided that global warming does represent a threat to human life on the planet if not directly then indirectly. Those that disagree will just have to be turned in to sausage for my pizza.
Carlsbad Concord Curt


David Marshall March 18, 2011 at 7:07 am

Martin: Dawkins provides an excellent example, as does my grandmother.

Dawkins sold millions of copies of his The God Delusion, based not just on his writing skill, but on his authority as the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. It is obvious, from many Amazon reviews and comments, that his scientific authority helped to sell a lot of people on his book, and maybe ideas.

Aside from a book-length rebuttal, I posted a list of 160 “errors, exagerations, and highly dubious claims” on my web-site. Most had to do with fields Dawkins obviously knows little about — history, the Bible, philosophy, American society. Some had to do with fields my uneducated Pentacostal grandmother indeed knew more about than Dawkins.

There are also several errors in his book related to his defense of evolution against “Creationism,” meaning Intelligent Design. I started a forum on that very subject on Amazon, inviting all the atheists and evolutionary scientists (some do post on Amazon) to rebut my points.

What right did I have to challenge Dawkins “in his own field?”

Simple. The man is sloppy, arrogant, and intellectually lazy. If he gets his facts wrong, which he does, why shouldn’t an amateur (in that field) challenge him?

Besides, “scientist” is vague. Dawkins is a zoologist, who studied the feeding habits of chicks for his dissertation. He has written a lot on evolution, and has influenced people with ideas (or metaphors) like “memes,” and “the selfish gene.”

But real scientists usually recognize that their expertise is strictly confined.

After writing my chapter critiquing the scientific side of Dawkins’ arguments, I showed it to two biologists, and a physicist (one of Dawkins’ Oxford colleagues) working in protein folding. (All three being skeptical of ID.) None questioned my right to challenge Dawkins’ arguments, as some offended critics have. One of the biologists pointed out to me how busy successful scientists are, and how limiting that can be. A lot of people take the word “scientist” as some sort of magical talisman, picturing scientists as universal geniuses, like the scientist in the Simpsons. But that’s not how things really work.

When I’m speaking in my own primary areas of expertise, I am usually not offended if someone challenges my points. This is what scholarship is all about. True, there are silly people who fail to recognize the value of expertise — but that includes many of the experts, talking outside their own fields, or sloppily within.

This also applies, obviously, to Global Warming. What do AGW fans expect people to think, when such nonsensical garbage as Al Gore’s little horror flick wins him the Nobel Prize? Obviously, there is something seriously wrong in an intellectual community that puts up with that kind of stuff. The common man has every right to be skeptical.

Nor is it limited to Gore. I have seen SO much nonsense from people who purport to be experts on some aspect of Global Warming. Often their theories overawe ordinary readers, because they cite obscure papers and throw their credentials around promiscuously. The more I have seen of this, the more skeptical I have grown.


Lorkas March 18, 2011 at 7:39 am

Al Gore is obviously a dumbass, and he overstated the problem in many areas. That does not mean that there is no problem.

And I don’t think that they meant you have no right to challenge ideas from outside your field. What they said is that when your uneducated and unpracticed opinion is pitted against the opinion of all the people who work in some field, it’s far more likely that you have missed something than it is that they have all missed something. In other words, you should approach the problem by presenting your objections as questions that might have answers (if you ask an expert in the field), rather than magic bullets that bring down theories you probably don’t fully understand.

Again, I see it all the time in biology when non-biologists believe they have a magic bullet to bring down evolutionary theory, when they obviously don’t even have a first-year biology student’s understanding of what evolutionary theory really says. If they approach humbly and ask questions, they are welcomed and they’ll learn something. If they approach with hostility and make assertions, then they’re going to end up rebuked and (if they have the capacity) embarrassed.


David Marshall March 18, 2011 at 8:16 am

Lorkas: Yes, I’m sure you do meet people like that a lot, and I’m sure it must be irritating. I see it as both the strength and the weakness of American society that we tend to polarize. An informed and logically adroit person can almost always deconstruct popular arguments on the other side without difficulty. But there is something valuable in the attitude of skepticism itself, and in the bottoms-up quest for truth — something fundamental to American democracy — that one must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Studies show that university professors are among the most politically exclusive groups in America. Biologists are among the most religiously skeptical. It often seems to me that a kind of “Us vs. Them” group mentality sets in, that is potentially dangerous, perhaps to both sides. That’s why intellectual humility is, as you said, important, but to both sides, not just one.

Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, engages in maudlin rants against his students in Honest to Jesus, for failing to accept his theories, or going “out into the dark night of consumerism, professional sports, and mildless television.” He complains that physics or biochemistry teachers or classicists “rarely face students who think they know better,” but “untutored sophomores” plague religious studies profs for equal time for their “ill-conceived certitudes.”

Yet I think Funk’s own certitudes are also ill-conceived, and his students right to react (however incoherently) against them. Sometimes are vaguely aware of difficulties that they can’t articulate well. And often the social bifurcation that arguments produce make it hard for the dominant side to fairly look at opposing arguments. (I also think a teacher is lucky when his students are engaged in the question, even if skeptically! I’ve had worse teaching experiences.)


Reginald Selkirk March 18, 2011 at 8:54 am

Climate Change: Who Will Pay the Costs?

The question should be, “Who should pay those costs?”

Ahem; these are two very different questions.


Reginald Selkirk March 18, 2011 at 8:59 am

By the way, on the general gullibility of many skeptics when it comes to such matters, involving both AGW and Intelligent Design, see my article posted a few days ago, “Why Are Americans Scientifically Precocious? Is Michael Behe Responsible?”
>> The stupidity of the American people is an article of faith for many on the Left and among European intellectuals, it being generally accepted that religion is to blame.

I am not impressed. The stupidity of the American people could hardly be a matter of faith, since it is copiously evidenced. Your take on the accepted causal relationship between stupidity and religion is also highly questionable.

One paragraph and already I’m not impressed.


Bill Ellis March 18, 2011 at 9:16 am

Chapter #05 — A GAIAN CREED
To Be or Not To Be:
Morality, Mortality and Immortality

The Gaian paradigm has implications to our belief systems that go beyond a view of the cosmos. They include implications to our ideas of morality, mortality, immortality, as well as our system of human values. Some people have taken these implications into the sphere of religion. Some see the formation of a new Gaia religion. To others, an understanding of Gaia supports the values that have governed humanity for eons past. Without taking positions on such speculations we should at least open the dialogue on the degree to which these scientific notions might influence our pragmatic view of our lives.

For most of the 13.7 billion years that the Cosmos has been in existence, there was no one to ponder the question of to be or not to be. While quarks evolved into atoms, the atoms, into molecules, and the molecules into cells, consciousness of being did not exist. Each new step of evolution brought new entities and new properties. Only in the evolutionary phase when brain cells had evolved and created the human mind, did “being” — the property of thought, memory, and consciousness — emerge. Only in this brief miniscule submoment of cosmic evolution has the sense of being existed. Only in this small window of time have humans been the source of conscious being and recognized, as Descartes put it, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am).

It is safe to say, that for most of the past billions of cosmic years I (as an individual) did not exist. It is also reasonable to believe that in billions of future cosmic years after my physical death I (as an individual) will not exist. Only in a brief, transient flash do individual people exist. Certainly, I did not exist before a zygote was formed by the union of cells from my two parents. And, certainly, the development, by chemical and biological means of an embryo from that zygote did not have the property of independent action and conscious thought. It is also clear that, when I drew my first breath on being born, I was not the evolved being that I was to become. The question “to-be or not-to-be? was not in my mind. My process of becoming a human being was still ahead of me.

It is clearly impossible to identify all of the experiences in one’s life that contribute to one’s development into a unique being. Everyone is learning every moment from birth to death, from waking to sleeping. Each moment is a step in becoming. Our bodies, brains, and minds slowly evolve from the nothingness of our pre-births through to tour final passage back into dust. If there is no heaven or nirvana into which to pass, it is reasonable to think we come to an end.

So far, I have written about only two aspect of being — the body and the mind. There is a third aspect. It is more the essence of who we are than the other two. It is more ethereal and more everlasting. I’m not sure what I should call it. But, for lack of a better word, I’ll call it “soul.” By soul, I don’t mean anything mysterious, mystical, magical, divine, or other worldly. The soul is the essence, the unique core of our being of who we are. It’s who we are more than either our minds or our bodies.

This soul, the true center of one’s being, is not easy to circumscribe. It, like the mind and body, evolves. Its evolution ocurs over all time. Not that the past will be embodied in one’s physical and mental being, but from the beginning of time to the end of time what we become involves the whole cosmos. We have a birth date and a death date. But who we become is already, in part, predetermined by the world around us. The essence of our being — our soul — is absorbed over time from the preexisting world of ideas and actions, of nature and technologies, of awe and wonder, and of the beauty and mystery that exist in, and is, the cosmos. It is the universal cosmic soul. It is similar to the noosphere of Pierre Teilard de Chardin, the collective unconscious of Carl Jung, the ideosphere of others. It is the totality of the physical, biological, technological, and cultural worlds and more. It is the the knowledge, the beliefs, the feelings, as well as the written word and the passed on memories of everyone who has ever lived. It is inherited from our ancestors and from the evolving physical, biological, mental. technological and social spheres.

This cosmic soul has been evolving since the Big Bang. Each step in cosmic evolution has created a new part of the cosmic soul. It includes Mount Fuji, the Johnston flood, the ice ages, the Crusades, the invention of the computer, and all other happenings. Each individual at birth is enmeshed in the cosmic soul of the time.

A simple example of this idea of soul is that of a flock of birds. The soul of the flock evolves as a unit. It includes migration patterns, eating resources, nesting places, and other characteristics. The flock follows certain patterns for centuries. Each individual bird live for but a short time. But the memory essence or soul of the flock is passed to new birds as they hatch, join the flock, participate, and learn by doing. The soul of the flock evolves as it continually finds new opportunities and faces new challenges. Each bird gains its individual soul and passes its know-how on to other new birds that join. The soul of the flock is passed from individual souls to individual souls, as the flock evolves to meet contingencies of the time.

Humans likewise are born into the cosmic soul. They are embedded in the essence of all that exists. Who they are to become depends on what they absorb into themselves from all that is. Each soul is immortal. It is part of the cosmic soul. Everything anyone, makes, writes, says,or does becomes part of the cosmic soul and is everlasting. Shakespeare, Edison, Einstein, Jesus, Marx, Smith and others are still with us. So is Joe Blow, Anna Finklestein, and other common people. All have left their marks for eternity.

Each act or expressed idea is like dropping a stone in a mill pond. The stone may sink to the bottom never to be seen again. But its ripples spread out and may join other ripples to produce an overwhelming wave of social transformation. The origins of any act of social change may be lost in the myriad of its sources. Once we recognized this, we are driven to live a positive, creative life of values — to be one of the sources of what will become. Whether anyone remembers the name of any one of us, everything we have, said, or written is part of the evolving cosmic soul.

Each person’s soul is formed by every experience and every thought they ever have. It is passed on in the same way. Each “unexpected act of kindness or senseless act of beauty” makes a ripple like a grain of sand dropped in the cosmic mill pond. Every kind word one utters forms a pebble’s ripple that will be passed on. More telling in the cosmic soul will be some of the memos, papers and posts that are written. They are rocks that make a bit bigger splash, or at least have a guaranteed longer life. Most important are the interactions among people close one another — families, friends, and communities. In a person’s children, friends an colleagues there is a continual riling of the waters (particularly of the good stuff). It is passed into the cosmic soul in that it remains real in the future and assures the immortality of everyone who ever lives.

Recognizing the immortality of our souls suggests a new emphasis on morality. Every act, thought or word we utter should be in the context of its impact on the cosmic soul. They change the cosmic soul as they happen and they will be remembered and they will affect cosmic evolution for ages into the future. They provides us with reason for living. As one colleague stated it, the new moral imperative is: “Make all decision based on whatever promotes the health, competence and adaptive flexibility of oneself and of all the larger system of which one is a part” (Gaia)
Whether we accept this view of the human or the cosmic soul the Gaian paradigm suggests a view of It does suggest the below value system



We belong to the Webs-of-being – - to the Cosmos -
- to Earth – to Gaia.

Belonging is the proto-value from which all other values derive.

We belong to the physiosphere, to the biosphere, to the ideosphere.
We belong to Gaia.
As the aborigines said it “
“we are the ownees of the land, not the owners of the land.”
As Chief Seattle said it,
“We can not own the land, we are part of the land.”
We belong to and are inseparable from our culture-
- from one another –from Earth — from Gaia.
We are interdependent with all that is.

Belonging is scientific fact; and,
belonging is more than scientific fact.

Belonging is not merely “being a member of”, but it is being subject to-
being in partnership with –
- being responsible for.
We belong to — are responsible for -
- the webs -of-being — the universe — the Earth — Gaia.
Belonging to-Gaia means recognizing that we are enmeshed in the webs-of-being and that our well-being is dependent on the well-being of Gaia.
If we destroy Gaia, we destroy ourselves.

Belonging implies “cooperation” — working with what is —
with Gaia — the webs of being.
Belonging implies “community.” In our face-to-face relationships with people we form community — we belong to community.
Belonging implies “responsibility.” We are responsible for Gaia.
We are responsible for one another.
Belonging implies “Love.”
We can not separate love (agape) from the fact that we belong to Gaia.
We love because we must love to preserve Gaia — to preserve ourselves —
to preserve the webs-of-being

Cultures built on values other than belonging are doomed to self-destruct. A culture built on “domination of the earth, and all the animals therein” is doomed to disappear. A culture based on “self-interest” is doomed to disintegrate.
A Culture based on “survival-of-the-fittest” will not survive.
A culture based on competition will destroy itself.

To be stable and sustainable a culture must be based on cooperation, community, responsibility, love, honesty, caregiving, and the other values which are implied by and intertwined with one another and with belonging.

We can no more separate ourselves from belonging — from Gaia– and remain a viable culture; than an oxygen atom can separate itself from hydrogen atoms and retain the qualities of water.


David Marshall March 18, 2011 at 9:16 am

Reginald: What makes you think I was trying to impress you, or that anyone should care about your naked, unsubstantiated opinion, after reading all of one paragraph?


Martin March 18, 2011 at 9:35 am


I’m sure you are aware of the existence of the atheist “echo chamber.” All atheists “know” that Kant refuted “the” ontological argument (even though there are many more). All atheists “know” that cosmological arguments are stupid because they say that “everything has a cause” (even though they don’t). All atheists “know” that Paley’s argument is the only one theists use today (even though they don’t).

I’m sure you, like me, have banged your head on the wall until bloody when hearing stuff like this.


The same kind of “echo chamber” happens in the climate skeptic community as well. All climate skeptics “know” that the hockey stick was refuted (even though it never was). All climate skeptics “know” that Gore’s movie is complete fiction (even though it isn’t). All climate skeptics “know” that it’s really the sun (even though it isn’t).

Makes me want to bang my head against the wall. It’s the same phenomenon. Climate “skeptics” just read what other climate “skeptics” say, and misinformation just keeps getting regurgitated by the same people. No new information is allowed in from outside.


cl March 18, 2011 at 11:06 am


One paragraph and already I’m not impressed.

LOL!! Such “critical” thinking!


Curt March 18, 2011 at 11:53 am

Whyle trying to catch up on things that have been posted here I saw in one report that most philosophers on a survey said that they would kill one person to save 5, or something along those lines.
I wonder how they would answer the question, would you kill 300 million people to save 7 billion people? Of course the question of levels of certianties could also be added to the question. (Why would one think that by killing 300 million you would be saving 7 billion?)
Remember it is all hypothetical. It does not have anything at all to do with global warming as far as I can tell.
Clueless Cornball Curt


David Marshall March 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Martin: I’ve already conceded, in several ways, that people who disagree with me aren’t the only ones to be pigheaded or engage in Groupthink!

Yes, sure, there are lots of theists, and lots of AGW critics, who engage in the same thoughtless behavior. Yes, I’m sure it can be frustrating for sincere people on the other side of those issues.

But what I said about Gore’s film was based on my own investigation, not on “what everyone knows.” I didn’t say anything about the sun, or about hockey sticks; I’ve never even played hockey, except with my boys on a frozen beaver pond with broken sticks that weren’t shaped conventionally, anyway.


Me March 19, 2011 at 1:49 am

It’s much more complicated than that. How about the extinction of different species? That could lead to a very serious problems of food production. See bee’s situation for instance… It isn’t just about “costs”…


Curt March 19, 2011 at 9:49 am

At first I did not think that it would do any good to mention this. It might be too late now.
Not that it really really matters. I saw up above talk about a 2 ft. rise in sea levels by the end of the century. Well here in Germany I have often heard that it is likely that the sea level will rise 2 M e t e r s THIS CENTURY. The explination is that the rise in sea levels is going to accelerate ever faster like a Porsche with someone pushing the accelerator to the floor. During the next Century a 6 M E T E R rise in sea levels should be expected.
It is my choice to believe German Media or the diverse US media on this issue. Based on past performance I choose to trust German Media. Of course I do not expect US republicans to make the same choice. I think that they would rather choose to end up as sausage decorating my pizza.
Contradictory Counselor Curt


David Marshall March 19, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Curt: The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts that sea level will rise between 7 inches and 2 feet by 2100. Feel free to believe Der Spiegel, or whatever, instead, if you like.


David Marshall March 19, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I don’t think many of its members are Republicans, BTW.


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