The Science of Gore's Nobel
What if everyone believes in global warmism only because everyone believes in global warmism?
BY HOLMAN W. JENKINS JR.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
The Nobel Committee might as well have called it Al Gore's Inner Peace Prize, given the way it seems designed to help him disown his lifelong ambition to become president in favor of a higher calling, as savior of a planet.
The media will be tempted to blur the fact that his medal, which Mr. Gore will collect on Monday in Oslo, isn't for "science." In fact, a Nobel has never been awarded for the science of global warming. Even Svante Arrhenius, who first described the "greenhouse" effect, won his for something else in 1903. Yet now one has been awarded for promoting belief in manmade global warming as a crisis.
How this honor has befallen the former Veep could perhaps be explained by another Nobel, awarded in 2002 to Daniel Kahneman for work he and the late Amos Tversky did on "availability bias," roughly the human propensity to judge the validity of a proposition by how easily it comes to mind.
Their insight has been fruitful and multiplied: "Availability cascade" has been coined for the way a proposition can become irresistible simply by the media repeating it; "informational cascade" for the tendency to replace our beliefs with the crowd's beliefs; and "reputational cascade" for the rational incentive to do so.
Mr. Gore clearly understands the game he's playing, judging by his resort to such nondispositive arguments as: "The people who dispute the international consensus on global warming are in the same category now with the people who think the moon landing was staged in a movie lot in Arizona."
Here's exactly the problem that availability cascades pose: What if the heads being counted to certify an alleged "consensus" arrived at their positions by counting heads?
It may seem strange that scientists would participate in such a phenomenon. It shouldn't. Scientists are human; they do not wait for proof; many devote their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses (especially well-funded hypotheses) they've chosen to believe.
Less surprising is the readiness of many prominent journalists to embrace the role of enforcer of an orthodoxy simply because it is the orthodoxy. For them, a consensus apparently suffices as proof of itself.
With politicians and lobbyists, of course, you are dealing with sophisticated people versed in the ways of public opinion whose very prosperity depends on positioning themselves via such cascades. Their reactions tend to be, for that reason, on a higher intellectual level.
Take John Dingell. He told an environmental publication last year that the "world . . . is great at having consensuses that are in great error." Yet he turned around a few months later and introduced a sweeping carbon tax bill, which would confront Congress more frontally than Congress cares to be confronted with a rational approach to climate change if Congress really believes human activity is responsible.
Mr. Dingell is no fool. Is he merely trying to embarrass those who offer fake cures for climate change at the expense of out-of-favor industries such as Mr. Dingell's beloved Detroit?
Take Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist working with Kleiner Perkins, a firm Mr. Gore joined last month to promote alternative energy investments. Mr. Khosla told a recent Senate hearing: "One does not need to believe in climate change to support climate change legislation. . . . Many executives would prefer to deal with known legislation even if unwarranted."
Mr. Khosla is no fool either. His argument is that the cascade itself is a reason that politicians can gain comfort by getting aboard his agenda.
Now let's suppose a most improbable, rhapsodic lobbying success for Mr. Gore, Mr. Khosla and folks on their side of the table--say, a government mandate to replace half the gasoline consumed in the U.S. with a carbon-neutral alternative. This would represent a monumental, $400 billion-a-year business opportunity for the green energy lobby. The impact on global carbon emissions? Four percent--less than China's predicted emissions growth over the next three or four years.
Don't doubt that this is precisely the chasm that keeps Mr. Gore from running for president. He could neither win the office nor govern on the basis of imposing the kinds of costs supposedly necessary to deal with an impending "climate crisis." Yet his credibility would become laughable if he failed to insist on such costs. How much more practical, then, to cash in on the crowd-pleasing role of angry prophet, without having to take responsibility for policies that the public will eventually discover to be fraudulent.
Public opinion cascades are powerful but also fragile--liable to be overturned in an instant when new information comes along. The current age of global warming politics will certainly end with a whimper once a few consecutive years of cooling are recorded. Why should we expect such cooling? Because the forces that caused warming and cooling in the past, before the advent of industrial civilization, are still at work.
No, this wouldn't prove or disprove a human role in warming, only that climate is variable and subject to complicated influences. But it would also eliminate the large incentive for politicians to traffic in doom-laden predictions--because such predictions would no longer command media assent and would cease to function as levers to redistribute resources.
Mr. Gore would have to find a new job.
Mr. Jenkins is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal on Wednesdays.