You Know, I Just Have a Hard Time Swallowing This

Jim Manzi writes:

I’m also glad to see that Ezra Klein is explicit about his acceptance that climate change is expected to have extremely limited effects on the United States for at least the next hundred years. I figure that ought to be pretty important when debating the proper policies for the government of the United States.

This is weird. Ezra says:

For instance, the consensus estimate appears to be that if current warming trends continue, America will become between six and 13 degrees Fahrenheit warmer over the 21st century. To put that in context, the change in temperature between the coldest period of the Ice Age — which was 21,000 years ago — and the current climate is estimated at between 7 and 13 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re planning on making the same jump in a single century.

Now, maybe this won’t manage to destroy the American economy or make whole regions uninhabitable, but to argue that an increase of between 7 and 13 degrees will result in “extremely limited” effects is bizarre. Moreover, Ezra isn’t making the point that America will face extremely limited effects. He’s making the point that whatever effects America will face, the experience in developing nations will be considerably worse, and they’ll be considerably less able to handle the experience given that they’re not nearly as rich as us.

It isn’t difficult to make an argument that the government of the United States should care about this for reasons of self-interest — we should care about potential trading partners and geopolitical stability and so on. But one shouldn’t have to make those arguments. Another way of putting this — and note, Megan, now I’m angry — who gives a flying fuck if our emissions are only going to cause some significant but acceptable level of damage in America, when they’re going to cause terrible damage to other human beings elsewhere? No sane person would sit around writing things like “It ought to be extremely important to the government of the United States that the firing of American missiles at other countries will have extremely limited effects on the United States.” File under true but totally irrelevant.

I think Manzi would argue back that hey, research on the missle program produced economic benefits that were shared in part by developing nations, and sure we have some obligation to extend aid to those damaged by our heedless missle launching. Again, what kind of moral calculus is this? It’s totally alien to me.


  1. Karl Smith says:

    I never really got Manzi’s whole tribes in the woods analogy.

    To me its sounds a bit like this:

    Look ensalving other tribes has been going on for a long time. And, no one really knows who ensalved who. I mean really!

    What we do know is that whether or not the West enslaved anyone western culture has really helped out the world. So I don’t really see the problem with us taking on a few more slave.

  2. alli says:

    I said this at Matt Y’s place, but this qualifies as catastrophic for South Louisiana NOW. Our decades-long coastal erosion problem affects over a million people, a massive seafood industry, a sizable portion of domestic oil and gas production, and the world’s largest port system in terms of gross tonnage, a port that exports over half of the Midwest’s agricultural products, so you don’t have to look halfway around the world to find catastrophic consequences. This isn’t even a problem confined to Louisiana, because if our port goes underwater, if our entire oil/gas industry goes underwater, the whole country is fucked.

    It’d be nice if someone would pay attention.

  3. Jim Manzi says:


    As per our last back-and-forth on this, I meant it when I said I had taken my last at bat but just to be clear about what I meant about Ezra’s post, here he is:

    “But as the paper makes clear, a lot of the global warming debate comes down to how much we care about people who aren’t us. The actual economic drag projected for the United States in the 21st century is relatively modest: 3 percent or so. The worst of climate change comes in other countries and long into the future. I’m young, but I’ll be long dead by the time the time climate change transitions into climate chaos.”

    BTW, I’m not anngry at all on this, and never have been angered by our exchanges.

    When you say:

    “I think Manzi would argue back that hey, research on the missle program produced economic benefits that were shared in part by developing nations, and sure we have some obligation to extend aid to those damaged by our heedless missle launching. Again, what kind of moral calculus is this? It’s totally alien to me.”

    (pretty funny analogy, BTW), I think you’d agree that you’re being a little unfair. As a practical matter, societies pursue self-interest. Any well-ordered and just society considers the effects it has on other societies as part of this calculus. It is enitrely artifical, however, (at least in my view) to separate out one impact – AGW – that we have on the rest of the world from all of the other externalities that are bundled into this development, and also artificial to claim that for this one impact we should consider every person now on the earth or yet to be born to have an equal claim on our resources as evevry citizen of the US, when we do not do this for any other policy decision.

    With respect,

  4. Jim Manzi says:


    The point of the “tribes in the woods” analogy wasn’t to justify any behavior we want because bad things have been done at some point in history, but to try to have a more realistic metaphor for international relations whe considering this issue. I agree that it’s imperfect, but think it’s a lot more realistic than the “don;t dump trash on your neighbor’s lawn” metaphor often used in this discussion.


  5. One place Manzi goes wrong is considering whether we should spend “our resources” in helping other countries. The American 5% that consumes 25% of the world’s energy is in no position to talk about “our” resources. In practical terms, a very small rise in per capita world demand translates into a very large impact on our resource-hungry society.

    And, in general, our economists, solemnly considering the price of tennis balls now, compared with potential prices of tennis balls in the future, are simply missing the big picture.

    In economic terms, spending 2% of the GDP fighting AGW is just a rounding error. Apparently we spend about 7% of our GDP subsidizing a health care ‘system’, which would be costing us 7% of our GDP instead of 15%, if we had a plan similar to what they do in Europe. What we’ve spent ‘fighting drugs’ or shoveling money into the mortgage bubble would have made us largely self-sufficient in renewable energy.

    In real-world terms, a little AGW will be more than enough. Houston is about a foot above sea level- it won’t take much. Our entire agricultural system has been fine-tuned to the climate we had– oops! Most of our flood-control works were poorly designed and can’t handle serious rain events now.

    Perhaps the most stunning insanity, though, comes with the thought that the rest of the world, which has never attained our ‘standard of living’, is going to happily march over the cliff, like lemmings in a Walt Disney movie, to maintain it. Pretty sure that’s not going to happen.

    Ezra is probably right that the worst effects of AGW won’t be seen in the USA. That’s a lot different from saying you won’t see any effects, or just a few.

  6. jim says:

    Different parts of the US will be affected differently, too. Some unmanageably. California gets some of the worst impact: hydrology changes making for less water and what water they do get being much less controllable; sea level rises affecting the bay area, San Diego and the LA basin; increased wildfire risk. Hydrology affects the entire SW, sea level rises impact the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coast (and the Tidewater area, the Outer Banks and the Jersey shore), not to mention Southern Florida. One the other hand, Vermont and New Hampshire lose some ski business and there may not be any adverse impact on Maine.

    One of the minor political oddities of climate change is that the states most likely to be adversely impacted by it by and large send representatives to Congress who don’t want to do anything about it.