Thursday, February 13, 2020

Snark Attack

This is one of those things that I wrote up, and then, for some reason never got around to posting. While I put it together only three weeks ago, it seems like forever ago. Time flies, I suppose, and never moreso than when you're old.

So this all starts with Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin taking aim at Greta Thunberg's speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.
Personally, I think that the young Ms. Thunberg is sometimes held up as a sort of human shield for climate change activism, and so I understand the impulse to strike at her. That doesn't mean it's an impulse worth acting on, however. After all, anyone can snark about a teenage girl's apparent lack of understanding of economics. And given that Ms. Thunberg is said to be on the autism spectrum, she's something of a rather large sitting duck.

I'm going to admit to being something of a climate change fatalist. Not because I think that humanity can't do anything to combat or blunt the impact, but that people won't do anything. Secretary Mnuchin is correct when he notes that drastic measures to combat climate change are going to have serious economic consequences. And, at least for right now, people are more concerned that they'll be the ones left holding the bag. Developed nations don't want to give up the economic growth that they associate with fossil fuel use, and developing nations don't want to lose the chance to become fully developed in the near future. Of course, as global temperatures rise, there are are also going to be serious economic consequences. We'll see if the people who are betting that those consequences will be someone else's problem have guessed correctly.

The fundamental question is straightforward, although by no means easy: What does the "standard of living trendline" (for want of a better name) look like moving forward? We can imagine a trendline for a "carbon-restricted" future. It's generally understood by many people (although it should be said that this is open to dispute) that some sacrifices will have to be made to substantially lower carbon emissions and thus prevent or lessen certain climate change impacts. The end result of these sacrifices can be seen as a loss of efficiency in converting work into standard of living. So for a given level of effort, standards of living will be lower than they are today, in the aggregate. For defenders of the status quo, business as usual leads to the best trendline. There may be problems ahead, but human innovation and technology will solve them, and thus allow people to have a better standard of living than would be possible in a carbon-restricted future. Climate activists, on the other hand, see a catastrophic scenario, where climate change impacts cause a sudden and steep dive in standards of living; one that can't be recovered from in the foreseeable future, if ever.

Of course, there are people on each side of the debate who argue that some or all of the other side are knowingly acting in bad faith. President Trump, for instance, says of climate activists: "These alarmists always demand the same thing - absolute power to dominate, transform and control every aspect of our lives." Climate reporter Robinson Meyer, on the other hand, accuses "America’s elected and appointed rulers" of "concern-trolling about whether the planet is warming at all," rather than actually engaging with the problem. Once can make the point that they are both correct to varying degrees. In emergencies, there is an impulse to control things; one can imagine what a Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Combat and Reverse Climate Change Act might look like, if it's anything like the USA PATRIOT Act. (Of course, one expects that the actual title would condense into a similarly contrived initialism/acronym.) At the same time, simply coming out and saying that at this point, we'd rather privilege the economy over climate concerns is politically unpalatable, so politicians have to deny the problem, instead.

Right now, the resources and the social institutions are roughly aligned with the status quo. Whether that's because of wealthy people cynically protecting their own interests or out of a genuine understanding that carbon restrictions aren't needed is beside the point. At present, people like Greta Thunberg can bluster and demand, but they can't simply go and implement the changes they want to see in the world; and they aren't in a position to move the needle by being the change, either. While this may make them strident, I don't think it should also make them targets. But this is the way that arguments over interests have evolved in our society. And, as untoward as it may seem at time, people are rewarded for behaving in this way. I might think that snarking at Greta Thunberg should be beneath a cabinet secretary. But someone was applauding Secretary Mnuchin, and those people matter more to him than I do.

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