Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Chris Hayes understands the threat of global warming; Tim Cavanaugh understands nothing

Chris Hayes must be used to this by now. Whenever Hayes--or anyone else, for that matter--mentions the catastrophe of global warming, he gets smacked down by someone. There are usual suspects in this game of whack-a-mole. The criticisms usually come from right-wing sources that are heavily financed by the energy industry.

One of the usual suspects is National Review. National Review Online published a critique of Hayes's latest essay in the Nation, headlined "Chris Hayes Wants to Kill About 5.7 Billion People." The headline has nothing to do with the article, but it sure catches your eye. The author, Tim Cavanaugh, presents no evidence that Hayes wants to kill anyone. There are no meaningful statistics presented, nor are there quotes from Hayes's article indicating how many people he wants to kill and why.

Cavanaugh's article is typical anti-science blather. He is no scientist. He does post the International Energy Agency's graph showing how much energy the world generates and how little of it comes from renewable or non-polluting sources. The graph is meaningless in itself because it does not predict how fast or at what cost polluting sources of energy can be replaced by non-polluting ones. It's possible they could all be replaced in 50 years, but Cavanaugh doesn't go into this because it would destroy his entire argument, or even his entire reason for living.

Since Cavanaugh doesn't explain how he arrives at the 5.7 billion killings figure, I will give it a shot. The total number of people on the planet in 2011 was about 8 billion, so Cavanaugh's estimate would be about 2/3 of that. Cavanaugh is simply stating that we can't possibly replace polluting energy sources with non-polluting ones and that therefore 2/3 of the people on the planet will die. A daunting thought, even though most of the energy we use does not go directly toward keeping us alive. Most of the energy we use is wasted on unnecessary items like NASCAR, barbecues and airplane flights to Bermuda. So we could probably cut 2/3 of it without killing anyone.

On the other hand, 40 percent of the energy we consume is used by industrialized countries, whose total population is about 1.2 billion. Therefore, we could easily reach a 40 percent reduction in energy use in industrialized countries without killing more that 1 billion people. Cavanaugh's prediction of mass extinction could only be true is each person on the planet used approximately the same amount of energy. But they don't.

Cavanaugh argues that the use of fossil fuels made rapid population growth possible. He calls this growth "progress". It follows from this assumption (implicitly) that stopping fossil fuel use would reverse "progress", resulting in the predicted number (5.7 billion) of deaths.

Cavanaugh uses some of his article to attack Hayes's writing style, calling it "tricked out with quasi-erudition and broad claims". He charges that Hayes uses "overflowing adjectives", "lethal compound modifiers", and "cascades of adverbs." Cavanaugh does not explain how this style negates the logic of Hays's article. I suspect he was just having fun with words. But his description of common compound modifiers like "heart-stopping" and "full-throated" as lethal is perhaps over the top.

I've spent far too much time dissecting Cavanaugh's article, but I was having too much fun. I'll discuss Jonathan Chait's more important critique in New York Magazine tomorrow.

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