Tides and Limitations

“Then the tide rushes in
And washes my castles away.”

     – Ray Thomas (in the Moody Blues’ A Question of Balance, 1970)

“A good man knows his limitations”

    — Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan, Magnum Force (1973 film with Clint Eastwood)

The Danish King of England Canute the Great ruled during the time that most of the world believed a king to be God’s lieutenant on earth; that is, omnipotent. Canute was indeed powerful. He ruled pre-Conquest England from 1018 to 1035, as well as Denmark and Norway. A legend concerning him was that once he demonstrated the limits of his power by having his throne placed on the seashore and commanded the tide not to come in. The tide, of course failed to obey. The story is doubtless apocryphal. Canute was not an idiot. He was not going to demonstrate his powerlessness in any case, and, like his contemporaries, he had a great respect for the forces of nature. This tale is a parable about the limitations of earthly kings. Whether Canute was a good man depends on one’s point of view, but one can be sure he knew his limitations. Survival in the Medieval world depended upon it. Harold, a close successor of Canute, apparently didn’t know his. As a consequence he lost both his throne and life in 1066 at Hastings. But most of his successors seemed to have learned the lesson, especially those monarchs of the most recent 300 or so years. As a result, a thousand years after Canute, England still has a king, or a queen. For more about the Canute legend, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13524677 (Please note that most historians use the Danish form “Cnut” rather than Canute. It’s too easy to transpose the two middle letters of the Danish form, and thus embarrass myself, so I opt for the English form.)

The powers and authority of English kings devolved upon our thirteen original states when they achieved independence. Some of those powers and authority were ceded to the United States Congress, President, and judiciary when the Constitution was ratified. It seems to have never been contemplated, however, that the states, nor Congress or the President had the power to command the tide from coming in. Like Canute, those who won independence and founded the United States were not idiots.

One of those Founders was James Madison, who together with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote 84 Federalist Papers arguing for ratification of the Constitution. Madison, like most of his contemporaries, did not understand physical nature to the degree that we do today. But they knew human nature certainly as well, and perhaps better in practical sense. In Federalist Number 10, Madison warned of the danger to the welfare of the body politic posed by political faction, and explained how the Constitution allayed that danger.

Faction, as understood by Madison is “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed [sic] to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Madison averred that there are two means of “curing the mischiefs” of faction: removing the causes, or controlling the effects. Further there are two means of removing the causes: (1) destroying the liberty of, or (2) by giving to every citizen “the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” The first cure is worse than the disease, Madison said, and who could possibly disagree. The second is impossible.

The conclusion Madison reaches is that only by controlling the effects of faction, can relief from its mischief be attained. Madison’s solution is employed by the Constitution which forms a federal republic in which power and authority are checked and balanced. That is accomplished, on one hand, by the structure of the central government that divides the legislative, executive, and judicial function into separate, co-equal branches as well as dividing the legislative function into two co-equal houses. On the other hand, some of the sovereign powers and authority are delegated to the central government with the rest reserved to the states.

All of this is to explain by analogy what can be done about the issue du jour the chicken-littles continue to thrust before us: that of global warming or climate change (the terms are interchangeable, the latter apparently has become in vogue to the proponents as easier to sell than “global warming”– words that work).

If global warming is occurring, and I accept that it has been over the past several decades, there are undoubtedly a number of causes. If human activity is a primary cause, which I do not accept, but will assume it true for the sake of argument, the proposed solutions all seek to limit that activity. Limitation is akin to destroying Madison’s liberty. It means drastic restriction use of technology that has been beneficial to health, comfort, and well being of all humankind, but particularly in America where most of the innovation occurred. It envisions perhaps a return to a Medieval standard of living. Given the hypothesis that the so-called greenhouse gasses are responsible for the warming trend, and the fact United States’ contribution to those emissions pales by comparison to that of China and India, the enforcement would require a totalitarian world government. That would certainly be a cure worse than the disease, and would be impossible anyway. A serious attempt would result in real global warming, followed by nuclear winter.

The way to treat global warming, then, is to control the effects. In a word, adapt. This is what Manhattan Institute scholar Robert Bryce advocates. Bryce has been agnostic about global warming, and has written about how the science is far from settled. Even so, Bryce believes that innovation in coping with a changing climate is the solution. In particular, he advocates natural gas as a stepping-stone to more comprehensive use of nuclear energy. Bryce points out one fact that every real scientist, and most laypersons know: No source of energy is as dense, portable, and convenient to use as hydrocarbons. Solar and wind cannot replace coal and petroleum for the production of sufficient electricity to run our homes, offices, and plants. Electric vehicles might be feasible for short distances, but that is all. Nuclear energy is an efficient source to produce energy, but it cannot be used to directly power a passenger car. Nothing can take the place of liquid hydrocarbons to fly an airplane. Recently (May 13, 2014), Bryce published his newest book Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong. Based on his previous work, it should make interesting, and perhaps enlightening, reading.

Climate change has occurred before. There was a Medieval Warm Period that lasted from around 950 to about 1250, and a Little Ice Age from the late Fourteenth Century to the mid-Nineteenth. Humankind survived, and even thrived in both. (Though the cataclysms of the Fourteenth led historian Barbara Tuchman to compare it with the Twentieth as “a distant mirror.”) Technological advances and adaptation were the reasons. This has been done before. Hot climates have been made tolerable by technology like air-conditioning. Cold climates have been made habitable by heating. The latter has had a much longer history. Humans better adapt to hot climates, or at least need less technological aid to survive in them. Vast areas in the northern reaches of both hemispheres that are now sparsely populated because they are so cold so much of the year. Those areas could and doubtless will become more populated. The Dutch reclaimed land from the sea; the Israelis did so from the desert. Those are limited in scope, perhaps, but it shows that it can be accomplished.

I have a lot of respect for scientists and the scientific method. No question that the process of observation, forming hypotheses, further observation and testing and refinement of hypotheses into theories that explain presently observable facts, has had immense benefit. Science is very good at explaining what has happened and how, and what is happening. Predicting what will happen? Not so much.

And there is no such thing as “settled science.” “Settled law” is what lawyers argue when they can find it, and even that is subject to change. Good science has its limitations, and good scientists know those limitations.

Our present king – and by that I mean the government in general, not the current occupant or occupants of the seats of power and authority – like Canute, cannot command the tide from rushing in and washing our castles away. Neither can they command the climate to halt its change. Ours cannot command its citizens to give up the advances and comforts that they and their prior generations have achieved. They just won’t do it.

For those interested, the National Center for Policy Analysis has published numerous monographs and other writings on global warming. See www.ncpa.org/pub. Also see the report entitled “Addendum: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” published by the Cato Institute Center for the Study of Science.



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