“To Call a Situation Hopeless is To Call It Ideal”

Published: 
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
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“No Stopping the Collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet” -- Science (May 16, 2014)

“Except possibly for the lowest-melt scenario, the simulations indicate that early-stage collapse [of the West Antarctic marine ice shelf] has begun.” -- Science (May 16, 2014)

“The use of the term ‘collapse,’ which connotes an imminent calamity, rather than a long, relatively slow process (glaciers melting at, literally, a glacial pace) generated quite a bit of chatter in the climate journalism community, but in interviews, scientists defended the word as apt for this situation”. – Mashable (May 20, 2014)

The political and rhetorical battle lines have been drawn, and people are deciding which side they will take in the climate change crisis. On the one hand, we have most traditional environmental activists, a consensus of physical scientists, and a host of politicians who insist that we must do something about carbon emissions. This group wants to subsidize electric cars and solar power production, tax or ban coal-fired power plants, ban incandescent light bulbs, among other planned, top-down approaches. This group seems to believe that doing something is better than nothing. To do nothing, even if it won’t matter much, is unconscionable.

On the other hand are a group of some economists, some ecologists, and others who advocate for adaptation to the coming change rather than trying to stop the oncoming tide. This approach seems to say, the changes are coming, whether anthropogenic or not, and it doesn’t matter the cause. People are cunning, quick, and capable of adapting to the consequences of climate change. It’s better to let the problem solve itself from the bottom up, with individuals acting Hayekian, as they can.

This second group argues that although change might be bad, trying to fix something that can’t be fixed is simply uneconomic and, more sadly, stupid. So to the title of this article: if a situation is hopeless, inevitable, then it is ideal. It is ideal in the sense that no action is required, desired, or sensible because any such action is a total waste if indeed the outcome is inevitable. See for instance, Matt Ridley’s discussion of adaptation and his interpretation of the revised position by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on adaptation rather than mitigation.

This means, in turn, that adjusting to the storm is better than fighting the storm. Normally people seem to understand this. Hurricanes are hard to stop. Tornados and earthquakes even as much so. What do cunning folk do in the face of these? They build tornado warning systems, sirens, etc. They educate and plan on what to do in the event of a tornado. They build cellars. And they choose not to live in tornado alleys, even as nice as they might otherwise be.

The recent scientific evidence, if it is accurate and believable, says that there is “no stopping the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.” If that is literally true, what sense on this earth does it make to shut down even one coal plant or to build an electric automobile? While there might be other good reasons to shut down a coal plant, say because of SO2 emissions, and there might be good reasons to support electric cars, say because we don’t like the smell of the emissions or the sounds from other automobiles, there is no reason to do these things to react to melting Antarctic ice if it is inevitable. If it is going to melt no matter what we do, then why should we do anything to stop it?

Instead, we should be finding ways to cope with rising sea levels. Maybe doing away with flood subsidies in coastal plains, or researching how to build better sea walls, or finding ways to live on the ocean instead of beside the ocean.

As one scientist recently put it, there are now enough observations to conclude that "the retreat of ice in that area of Antarctica is unstoppable.” If he is right and we can’t stop the melting and the concomitant sea rise, then let’s at least stop the hand ringing. Let’s stop trying to change what can’t be fixed, and let’s find ways to cope, somehow. We can. Let’s roll.

* The title of this post comes from oral tradition in economics, widely attributed to the phenomenal genius of the scholar Frank Knight (attributed in Calculus of Consent by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, 1958).

Bobby McCormick's earliest memories as a child are being raised in a property rights oriented household by an outdoorsy, farming, lumber/logging family; he remembers always thinking about "who owns what." McCormick views the environment as an asset and environmental failures as the result of ambiguous environmental ownership. To redress these...
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