Is it “Moral” to Restrict Fossil Fuel Use to Mitigate Future Sea Level Rise?

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


Organizations of all sorts are scrambling to get their ducks in a row in preparations for The People’s Climate March (we are not making this up) scheduled in NYC on September 21st as a prelude to the U. N.’s Climate Summit on the 23rd.  President Obama has pledged to be at the Summit.  The leaders of China, India, Australia, Germany, Canada, among others, have better things to do.

One of the pre-Summit events being held by several sponsors of The People’s Climate March is a Capitol Hill briefing scheduled for Thursday, the 18th. The Franciscan Action Network, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands (there is no way we could have made up that collaboration) are hosting a briefing titled “The Impact of Sea Level Rise Right Now: Stories of the Lived Experience and the Moral Call to Action.”

The bottom line of the briefing will be that:

Climate change is a moral, non-partisan and pragmatic issue which can be addressed by solutions with multiple co-benefits. We urge legislators to join global business, faith, scientific, health and military leaders in acknowledging that climate disruptions are real, happening now, and requiring our nation’s leaders to act.

It is interesting that they juxtapose a “moral issue” with calls for “policies to reduce national and global greenhouse gas emissions.” Interesting, we say, because there is a soon-to-be released and incredibly compelling book written by the Center for Industrial Progress’s Alex Epstein titled The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Its main premise is that both the short- and long-term benefits of using fossil fuels greatly outweigh the risks of any climate change that may occur as the result of the accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. Epstein argues that the “moral” thing to do is to continue (and expand) the use fossil fuels:

If we look at the big picture of fossil fuels compared with the alternatives, the overall impact of using fossil fuels is to make the world a far better place. We are morally obligated to use more fossil fuels for the sake of our economy and our environment.

The primary case against expansion of current fossil fuel use involves the risk from anthropogenic climate change.  However, here, the threats are overstated—especially by organizations (like many of those behind The People’s Climate March) that favor centralized government control of energy production (and most everything else).

The sea level rise concerns that are to be described in the Hill briefing will undoubtedly fall into the “overstated” category. According to the briefing’s flier:

“The U.S. National Climate Assessment projected that sea levels will rise 1 to 4 feet by 2100, affecting 39 percent of the U.S. population and impacting the very futures of many coastal communities and small island nations.”

We imagine that the focus will be on the high end of the 1 to 4 foot range (and beyond), even as a plethora of new science argues for an outcome nearer to the low end.

The current decadal rate of sea level rise is about 3 mm (.12 in) per year, which would result in about a foot of sea level rise during the 21st century. There  is a lot of recent research that concludes that a large increase in this rate of rise as a result of the melting of Greenland’s and/or Antarctica’s glaciers is unlikely.

The statistical models most responsible for the high-end sea level rise projections used have been shown to be questionable and thus unreliable. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the future projection of temperature rise made by climate models (upon which the sea level rise projections are based) have been shown by a growing body of scientific research to be overestimated by about 40 percent.

Taken together, the latest science argues that the case for rapid and disruptive sea level rise is flimsy at best.

Undoubtedly, sea levels will continue to rise into the future, in part, from the earth’s temperature increase as a result of human carbon dioxide emissions resulting from our use of fossil fuels. Appropriate adaptations will be necessary. However, signs point to a rather modest rise in sea levels accompanying a rather modest rise in temperature—a pace at which our adaptive response can keep up.

So long as this is remains case, the continued use of fossil fuels to power the developed world and the expanded use to help provide safe, reliable, and cheap electricity to the more than 1 billion people in the underdeveloped world that currently live without any (or very minimal) access to it is a no-brainer.  That’s where the moral imperative should lie.

Anthony Burgess on “the Duty to Distrust the State”

Anthony Burgess wrote some 50 books, but he became most famous for one that was made into a hit movie – A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962 and filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Two years later Burgess wrote an essay reflecting on the book, the film, and their message. But the essay was not published until 2012, in the New Yorker, where it could be seen only by subscribers. Only this summer did the New Yorker open access to its archives, if only temporarily. So at last I have a chance to draw attention to the section of it I particularly enjoyed, on the dangers of the modern state:

We probably have no duty to like Beethoven or hate Coca-Cola, but it is at least conceivable that we have a duty to distrust the state. Thoreau wrote of the duty of civil disobedience; Whitman said, “Resist much, obey little.” With those liberals, and with many others, disobedience is a good thing in itself. In small social entities—English parishes, Swiss cantons—the machine that governs can sometimes be identified with the community that is governed. But when the social entity grows large, becomes a megalopolis, a state, a federation, the governing machine becomes remote, impersonal, even inhuman. It takes money from us for purposes we do not seem to sanction; it treats us as abstract statistics; it controls an army; it supports a police force whose function does not always appear to be protective.

This, of course, is a generalization that may be regarded as prejudiced nonsense. I personally do not trust politicians or statesmen—very few writers and artists do—and consider that men enter politics for the negative reason that they have little talent for anything else and the positive reason that power is always delicious. Against this must be set the truth that government makes healthful laws to protect the community and, in the great international world, can be the voice of our traditions and aspirations. But the fact remains that, in our own century, the state has been responsible for most of our nightmares. No single individual or free association of individuals could have achieved the repressive techniques of Nazi Germany, the slaughter of intensive bombing, or the atomic bomb. War departments can think in terms of megadeaths, while it is as much as the average man can do to entertain dreams of killing the boss. The modern state, whether in a totalitarian or a democratic country, has far too much power, and we are probably right to fear it.

It is significant that the nightmare books of our age have not been about new Draculas and Frankensteins but about what may be termed dystopias—inverted utopias, in which an imagined megalithic government brings human life to an exquisite pitch of misery. Sinclair Lewis, in “It Can’t Happen Here”—a novel curiously neglected—presents an America that becomes fascist, and the quality of the fascism is as American as apple pie. The wisecracking homespun Will Rogers-like President uses the provisions of a constitution created by Jeffersonian optimists to create a despotism which, to the unthinking majority, at first looks like plain common sense. The trouncing of long-haired intellectuals and shrill anarchists always appeals to the average man, although it may really mean the suppression of liberal thought (the American Constitution was the work of long-haired intellectuals) and the elimination of political dissidence. Orwell’s “1984”—a nightmare vision which may conceivably have prevented the nightmare fact from being realized: no one expects the real 1984 to be like Orwell’s—shows the unabashed love of power and cruelty which too many political leaders have hidden under the flowers of “inspirational” rhetoric. The “Inner Party” of Orwell’s future England exerts control over the population through the falsification of the past, so that no one can appeal to a dead tradition of freedom; through the delimitation of language, so that treasonable thoughts cannot be formulated; through a “doublethink” epistemology, which makes the outside world appear as the rulers wish it to appear; and through simple torture and brainwashing.

Both the American and the British visions conjoin in assuming that the aversive devices of fear and torture are the inevitable techniques of despotism, which seeks total control over the individual. But, as long ago as 1932, Aldous Huxley, in his “Brave New World,” demonstrated the submissive docility that powerful states seek from their subjects as being more easily obtainable through non-aversive techniques. Pre-natal and infantile conditioning makes the slaves happy in their slavery, and stability is enforced not through whips but through a scientifically imposed contentment. Here, of course, is a way that man may take if he really desires a world in which there are no wars, no population crises, no Dostoyevskian agonies. The conditioning techniques are available, and perhaps the state of the world may soon frighten man into accepting them. 

The whole thing is worth reading, with its reflections on freedom and conformity, good and evil, Orwell and B. F. Skinner (he was big in 1973).

Prof. Krugman Snared By 364 Trap

In his New York Times column of September 15, 2014, How to Get It Wrong,Paul Krugman pleas for open-mindedness and reason. From whence did Prof. Krugman convert from his embrace of dogmatism?

Well, it’s clear that he has not converted. Indeed, the evidence resides about three quarters of the way through his column:

“The great majority of policy-oriented economists believe that increasing government spending in a depressed economy creates jobs, and that slashing it destroys jobs — but European leaders and U.S. Republicans decided to believe the handful of economists asserting the opposite. Neither theory nor history justifies panic over current levels of government debt, but politicians decided to panic anyway, citing unvetted (and, it turned out, flawed) research as justification.”

This passage brings back vivid memories of the 364. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and my friend and collaborator, the late Sir Alan Walters, was her economic guru. Britain’s fiscal deficit was relatively large, 5.6% of its gross domestic product, and the economy was in the middle of a nasty slump. To restart the economy, Thatcher instituted a fierce fiscal squeeze, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. This was immediately condemned by 364 dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian economists - virtually all of the British establishment. In a letter to the Times, they wrote, “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Thatcher and Walters were vindicated quickly. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy turned around and boomed for the next five years. That result provoked disbelief among the Keynesians. After all, according to their dogma, the relationship between the direction of a fiscal impulse and economic activity is supposed to be positive, not negative.

The 364’s dogma was proven wrong. Thatcher and Walters were right.

Middle East and North Africa: A Fatal Attraction

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation to proclaim that the U.S. and an unspecified coalition were going to once again ramp up our military operations in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This time, the target is the Islamic State, the group terrorizing Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

Just what is the economic condition of that troubled MENA region? This is a question that must be addressed by anyone who is looking over the horizon. After all, the state of an economy today will have a great influence on post-war prospects tomorrow.

My Misery Index allows us to obtain a clear picture of the current economic situation. The Index is the simple sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. I calculated a misery index for the countries in MENA where sufficient data were available.

As the chart shows, many of the countries in MENA are, well, miserable. Indeed, a score of over twenty indicates that serious structural economic problems exist. To correct these problems, thereby reducing misery, major economic reforms (read: free-market reforms) must be implemented. But, even if the respective governments approve such changes, it is unclear whether they can be implemented. To put a bit of color on that conjecture, consider that only 13 of the 21 countries in MENA reported the four pieces of economic data that are required to calculate my Misery Index. The regional governments’ inability to produce reliable economic data is a canary in a coal mine. When it comes to MENA, most of the countries have been singing for a long time. The region is, by and large, miserable.

Chile’s Proposed Education Reforms Would Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs

For the past three decades, Chile has had a nationwide voucher-like school choice program. Parents can choose among public and private schools, and the government picks up most or all of the tab. But, since the election last fall of a left-leaning government led by Michelle Bachelet, the future of the program has been in doubt. In May, President Bachelet introduced a first round of reforms aimed at dismantling aspects of the program, though these are still under debate. I’ve written about what that could mean for Chile’s educational performance and equality in today’s edition of the Santiago-based El Mercurio. Here’s the original English version:

Chile’s elementary and secondary education system has been harshly criticized in recent years for academic underperformance and for having large gaps in achievement between lower-income and higher-income students. There is significant truth to both charges. What is less widely known is that Chile has been improving substantially in both respects for at least a decade, and that president Bachelet’s proposed reforms are likely to reverse that improvement.

Though Chilean students perform in the bottom half of countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, many of the nations that participate in that test are rich and fully industrialized. When compared to other Latin American countries, Chile is number one across all subjects. More importantly, Chile is one of the fastest-improving countries in the world on international tests, and so it is gradually closing the gap with rich nations.

Imperialist Tourist Spots Help Explain Chinese Aggressiveness Today

BEIJING—Modern China continues to rise.  But ancient China remains.  And bears witness to a history the West would prefer to forget.

The Summer Palace is one of Beijing’s most enchanting tourist destinations.  But some of the old buildings are in ruins—courtesy of the Western powers.

Imperial China long was a cultured and advanced civilization that eventually fell into decay.  By the 1800s the Western powers had begun to carve out concessions and colonies.

The Summer Palace first was created in the 12th century and was meant to ease the life of the royal family.  In 1860 during the Second Opium War French and British troops destroyed most of what is now called the Old Summer Palace.

In 1886 the Empress Dowager Cixi used funds planned for a navy to rebuild the royal playground.  She called the site the Garden of Peace and Harmony, an appropriate name, except for the garden’s unwanted guests.

In 1900 came the Boxer Rebellion, named for the violent xenophobic, spiritual movement named the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists.”  The Boxers targeted foreigners, especially missionaries, and Chinese Christians.  The revolt, supported by the Empress Dowager, reached Beijing, in which Western diplomats were killed and legations were besieged.  The Western nations raised an eight-nation rescue force, including American troops.

The allied forces eventually relieved the city—alas, the Boxers discovered that their training did not render them immune to bullets.  One of the casualties was the New Summer Palace. The gardens and buildings were burned by the allies, objects contained within were plundered.

The Empress Dowager had to rebuild again on her return to Beijing, which she had fled in advance of the allies.  She died in 1908 and the republican revolution occurred three years later.

This unseemly history is of more than just academic interest.  It helps explain Beijing’s behavior today.

No doubt, some Chinese, both in and out of the People’s Republic of China, have an exaggerated sense of Chinese history, civilization, and destiny.  And Imperial China, despite the fascinating esoterica surrounding it, was an unfriendly place for most of the humane values which we value today.  Nevertheless, China has been treated badly, especially by the Western powers which today are most insistent on Beijing following Western standards.

This historical experience helps explain the nationalism which afflicts even young Chinese who are liberal in many other ways.  The same students believe in a strong, even dominant China.

In fact, many ethnic Chinese living outside of the PRC cheered Hong Kong’s 1997 reversion to Beijing’s control.  For them, the issue was CHINA, not the particular regime ruling the territory known as China at this moment.

More important, those in charge feel a special responsibility as their nation gains the resources, influence, and power necessary to reverse a century or more of humiliation.  That may not justify increasing Chinese assertiveness, especially in the West’s eyes.  But it helps explain the behavior.

This doesn’t mean other nations should automatically concede the PRC’s claims.  But it suggests that Chinese assertiveness involves something other than malevolent aggression.

In which case, as I write in my new article on China-US Focus, “Washington is foolish to militarize disputes which are, at most, of only moderate geopolitical interest.  Other nations, especially those, like Japan, whose behavior has been, shall we say, less than exemplary, have a special responsibility to accommodate Beijing’s perceptions and interests.”

History helps explain Beijing’s policies and politics today.  While those in the West might have amnesia about what their ancestors did to the forebears of China’s leaders, the latter are not so likely to forget.  Policymakers in the U.S. would do well to consider that history in designing their approach to Beijing.  A peaceful and prosperous 21st century might depend on it.

Immigration’s Real Impact on Wages and Employment

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has been releasing a series of reports claiming that immigrants are benefiting from the slightly recovering job market while natives are not.  Of course, if immigrants were even less likely to gain jobs than Americans, CIS would use that as evidence that immigrants are a drain on the economy.  No matter.  

The implicit assumption in CIS’ publications is that if those millions of immigrants weren’t working in the United States, more native-born Americans would have jobs – a static view of the economy.  CIS’ fixed pie implication is inappropriate to any kind of reasonable economic analysis of the effects of immigration on the labor market.  That is the primary reason why labor economists do not use CIS’ methods when attempting to measure the labor market impacts of immigration.  Even if CIS’ numbers were compiled correctly, they are not measuring anything useful.

A large body of academic economic research has found that immigration has a relatively small effect on U.S-born American wages and their employment prospects.  For wages impact, the estimates are that immigrants either lower the wages of some American workers by about 2 percent or raise them by about 2 percent in a dynamic economy (this, this, and this).  The employment effects vary little but, like wages, the effects are small and clustered around zero.  Nowhere will you find a tradeoff where one additional immigrants means that one American loses a job in the economy.

The CIS papers make no counterfactual dynamic economic estimates of the strength of the labor market without immigrants.

Here are some additional facts you won’t see in CIS’ papers: