Monday, April 24, 2006

It's A Crisis! But Which Crisis?

I called this week's column "An 'Imminent Threat' Rorschach Test" but my editor liked the "Threat-o-Meter" bit, so that made the headline. The Tribune changed the graphics around, but I'm not going to bother converting the italics to bold and the bold to bullet points. Got that? It's the best I could do with 680 words.

East Valley Tribune, Apr. 23, 2006

It’s a looming danger with disastrous consequences if we don’t confront it now. People may prefer avoiding the issue because we don’t have any easy options, but experts with the latest, best information agree that this problem is real.

Wait: Is the threat a nuclear Iran, or global warming? Your answer is a good proxy for your pre-existing biases. Is there anyone who believes that both Iran and global warming either are or aren’t imminent threats? Almost all readers of this page consider one case proven and the other not, and little things like facts won’t affect that belief.

But I’ll try anyway. Let’s strap each problem to the Threat-o-Meter for a global threat smackdown:

What’s the worst that could happen?

Iran: An Islamic theocracy, run by a Holocaust-denying rabble-rouser, develops nuclear weapons. Classic deterrence won’t work with Iranian radicals, who nuke Jerusalem even though it means nuclear annihilation of Iran in return.

Global Warming: Increasing planetary temperatures melt the ice caps, raising sea levels enough to inundate Calcutta, Shanghai, and lower Manhattan, creating millions of refugees; areas not under water are threatened by increasingly violent weather.

What if they’re crying wolf?

Iran: Iran has lots of conventional weapons, but hasn’t attacked Israel with them; it’s not clear the mullahs are less rational than Stalin or Mao, both of whom were deterred. Iran’s $50 million contribution to Hamas is more publicity stunt than real money, evidence that Iran may talk a lot about the Palestinian issue but won’t do anything actually serious. So going to war (much less first use of nukes) could destroy what’s left of U.S. influence in the Muslim world, open our troops in Iraq to Shia-inspired guerrilla attacks, or redouble Iran’s determination to get a bomb. We’re already living with a nuclear Pakistan, we’re about to sign a treaty with nuclear India, and we’re clueless about what to do with North Korea.

Global warming: Changing energy use and restricting emissions in time to stop warming in 40 years would require regulation now; it won’t happen voluntarily. That will hurt economic growth, about 1.5 to 3 percent of GDP growth over 40 years, which will be lost if we really didn’t need to save the world.

What’s the track record of those saying we have a problem?

Iran: The Bush administration has access to secret intelligence on Iran the rest of us can’t see. However, they also had access to secret intelligence about Iraqi WMD that actually didn’t exist, and their history of managing long-term land wars in Asia isn’t exactly stellar.

Global Warming: Pretty much all scientists in the field say there’s a problem, and recent data are confirming the initial theories and models; the skeptics all come from other disciplines, or aren’t really scientists (or write fiction), and are starting to resemble the “intelligent design” folks in their distance from the scientific mainstream.

Yeah, but what’s the cynical view of those saying we have a problem?

Iran: These guys like starting wars in the Middle East; they just don’t know how to finish them. They had no plan in Iraq and invading or bombing Iran would be tougher. Going to war helped in the 2002 midterms, and hey -- there are elections in November! And these days, if you want to bet that what Bush says is wrong, you have to give points.

Global warming: It’s the Michael Crichton view, that there’s a massive worldwide conspiracy of thousands whose religion is environmentalism (or the nuclear power industry) who are making it up. But when ExxonMobil pays its CEO $170 million in a year, couldn’t they scrape up enough cash to bribe a scientist to spill the beans?

My personal Threat-o-Meter says the costs of global warming, if real, are so huge, and the costs of fighting it are less so -- about what costs to fight three Asian land wars simultaneously. We can pay for it with borrowed money, just like those Asian land wars today. Either way, it looks worse than Iran. But either you already knew that, or there’s nothing I can say to persuade you.

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