Guns, climate and growing up

Every now and then someone who ordinarily makes a fair amount of sense writes something that serves only to remind us that even the extraordinarily smart can be extraordinarily wrong. So it was with Sam Harris‘s defense of gun rights, The Riddle of the Gun.

First, Harris insists that “the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward.” He doesn’t really attempt to bolster that argument with relevant facts, though, and there there’s little point in an all-too-easy exercise in debunking. In fact, that’s not even his central thesis. No, that would be good old-fashioned defeatism, which seems to me to be more and more a defining characteristic of American culture.

For Harris, because there are so many guns in the United States (300 million is the most widely quoted figure), it just doesn’t make sense to try to do much beyond making sure everyone who has one knows how to use it responsibly.

Guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime. This is, of course, a familiar “gun nut” talking point. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

No, it’s wrong because it doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny. Sean Faircloth, a former assistant state attorney general, offers one of a near infinite number of possible counterarguments here and Greg Laden offers some valuable historical context here.

Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist, admits to a penchant for target shooting, and he suffers from the same stubborn, child-like refusal to accept the fact that life is sometimes hard. And just because something is hard is no reason for not trying. I am reminded of my six-year-old son, whose response to challenging tasks is often “But I can’t!” As his father, I often know he can, but convincing him not to give up is among the most challenging tasks either of us face these days.

Yes, a handgun buyback program isn’t likely to be effective in the short term. But such programs have worked elsewhere (Australia being the most recent example), so it’s just not rational to give up without even trying. And yes, doing something about the hopelessly ambiguous and atavistic Second Amendment won’t be easy, but the Constitution has been amended before, against comparable opposition. So again, don’t try telling us there’s no point in organizing what may be a decades long-campaign.

The whole affairs brings to mind one of the common arguments against doing something about global warming. The world is hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. True. There’s enough easily accessible volumes of the stuff in the ground to tip the climate into some new equilibrium much less hospitable to civilization as we know it for the next 100,000 years. Also true. And all of the alternatives are more expensive. Yes, and yes and yes. But does any of that mean we shouldn’t even try to make the switch to clean renewables?

“It’s too hard, Daddy!”

When did America come to embrace defeatism? Somewhere between the last moon shot and Ronald Reagan’s first term, is my guess. Of course, it’s no coincidence that defeatism in the face of an overwhelming need for change always seems to bolster the profit margins of the secure and wealthy. Still, I suspect there’s something else at work here.

Chris Mooney has written about the evidence for a physiological basis for conservatism, which is now intimately associated with defeatism. Dan Kaheman makes the case of two types of thinking, one adapted for surviving on the Paleolithic plains of Africa, and one for civilization (although he doesn’t put it that way). But all of this dances around the essential fact that civilization is all about overcoming our ancient programming. We may not be designed to take the long view, and walk the hard path, and set aside our gut instincts in the face of carefully reasoned argument, but that’s what mature and responsible people – and societies – do.

Nothing give fills me with more pride than seeing my son try again, even when he isn’t sure he’s going to succeed. Even when he’s almost sure he won’t. It’s called growing up.

Did Climate Change Supersize Hurricane Sandy? | Mother Jones

Did Climate Change Supersize Hurricane Sandy? asks Chris Mooney in Mother Jones.

Look. We know there’s more moisture in the atmosphere because when you warm a gas it holds more vapor. So that means there’s more precipitation when a storm blows in. And we know the sea level is rising because when you heat water, it expands. More importantly, melting ice from Greenland is pouring incredible volumes of water into the northern Atlantic. This is all elementary physics. So for anyone to argue that Sandy isn’t at least in part a product of climate change is just plain silly.

More from Michael Mann

Now on CNN:

Imagine you are sitting in your office simply doing your job and a nasty e-mail pops into your inbox accusing you of being a fraud. You go online and find that some bloggers have written virulent posts about you. That night, you’re at home with your family watching the news and a talking head is lambasting you by name. Later, a powerful politician demands all your e-mails from your former employer.

It sounds surreal. But it all happened to …

Michael Mann.

in Michael Mann’s words

Michael Mann, co-author of the “hockey stick” visualization of the last millennium of global warming, has written a book about the trials of sticking to the science in an era when half the country is hostile to reality. Here’s the 10-minute synopsis, in the form of an interview:

The weatherfolk who never were

George Monbiot usually pays more attention to the climate than weather, but his recent interest in the latter should provide many hours of merriment, and not just in the UK;

This month, I questioned the credentials of the alternative weather forecasters used by the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph and the Sun. I suggested that their qualifications were inadequate, their methods inscrutable and their results unreliable. I highlighted the work of these two companies: Exacta Weather and Positive Weather Solutions (PWS).

Now the story has become more interesting: do the people from Positive Weather Solutions, making its forecasts and quoted in news articles, exist?

US energy emissions flat for next 25 years

From the US Energy Information Adminstration’s latest thinking:

Total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions remain below their 2005 level through 2035: Energy-related CO2 emissions grow by 3 percent from 2010 to 2035, reaching 5,806 million metric tons in 2035. They are more than 7 percent below their 2005 level in 2020 and do not return to the 2005 level of 5,996 million metric tons by the end of the projection period. Emissions per capita fall by an average of 1 percent per year from 2005 to 2035, as growth in demand for transportation fuels is moderated by higher energy prices and Federal fuel economy standards. Proposed fuel economy standards covering model years 2017 through 2025 that are not included in the Reference case would further reduce projected energy use and emissions. Electricity-related emissions are tempered by appliance and lighting efficiency standards, State renewable portfolio standard requirements, competitive natural gas prices that dampen coal use by electric generators, and implementation of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

Two comments: First, if we can hold energy-related emissions steady for the next while without resorting to a carbon tax, cap-and-trade scheme or other legislative stick, imagine what could be done with the right tools.

Second, similar trends are not expected in China and India.

Worst argument ever

This sort of thing is what gives economics a bad name.

As soon as have settled down and have some time I will post a more reasoned response.

UPDATE: I can’t find the time to rebut so many ignorant statement. Brad Johnson has done some of the heavy lifting. But really, if this doesn’t make it clear how out of touch the authors is, I don’t know what will.

Recapping …

In its latest Greenhouse Gas report, the World Meteorological Organization reminds us again that what really sets Homo sapiens apart from the other animals is an unparalleled talent for procrastination. Brad Johnson of Think Progress summarizes:

… since the global convention in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 at which the nations of the world pledged to prevent dangerous global warming, the intensity of global warming has increased by nearly a third. Most of the increase in pollution has come from the burning of fossil fuels, reaping untold profits for oil and coal magnates at the expense of civilization’s future. More than a quarter of all of the carbon pollution produced by the United States has come since then.

Which is why our grandkids will one day turn to us and say “Let’s me get this straight: you burned it all?”