When Government Intervention Works

Brad Plumer, an editor at Vox, tells us an important, little-known tale. It begins with things going badly: “Back in the 1980s and ’90s,” Mr. Plumer wrote earlier this month, “many fisheries in the U.S. were in serious trouble. Fish populations were dropping sharply. Some of New England’s best-known groundfish stocks – including flounder, cod, and haddock – had collapsed, costing the region’s coastal communities hundreds of millions of dollars.”

So the government got involved. But we know that government is always the problem, never the solution, so you know what came next.

Or maybe you don’t. In fact, government intervention has been a big success. Many fisheries have rebounded, to the benefit of the fishermen as well as consumers. (Mr. Plumer’s article, titled “How the U.S. Stopped its Fisheries From Collapsing,” can be read here).

Fighting climate change isn’t really all that different from saving fisheries; if we ever get around to doing the obvious, it will be easier and more successful than anyone now expects.

Abusing Relativity

Jonathan Chait at New York magazine recently published an extended takedown of the Fox News All-Star Panel’s reaction to the new National Climate Assessment for the United States, which I won’t try to summarize. But I do want to delve a bit more into one point. Mr. Chait quotes the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who dismissed the scientific consensus because “99 percent of physicists were convinced that space and time were fixed until Einstein working in a patent office wrote a paper in which he showed that they are not.”

As Mr. Chait notes, this logic would lead you to dismiss all science – hey, maybe tomorrow someone will write a paper showing that the germ theory of disease is all wrong, so why bother to sterilize instruments in hospitals?

But there’s something else wrong here – the complete misunderstanding of what Einstein did.

Yes, Einstein showed that space and time were relative concepts. But did he show that everything physicists had been doing up to that point was all wrong? Of course not – classical physics was an incredibly useful and successful field, and almost none of what it said had to change in light of relativity. True, Einstein showed that it was a special case – but one that applied almost perfectly at the speeds and accelerations we encounter in normal conditions.

So if we had an Einstein equivalent in climate science, he or she would find that existing models were right in 99.9 percent of what they assert, even though under extreme conditions they might be misleading.

Or maybe the simpler way to put it is: Dr. Krauthammer, you’re no Einstein.