10 February 2013

The Horsemeat in Your Lasagna

I just returned from the UK, where last week a scandal erupted involving horsemeat and lasagne. It turns out that packages of Findus lasagne labelled as beef turned out to contain from 60% to 100% horsemeat. As a result the product was pulled and tough questions are being asked about food safety. The scandal is spreading to other food products and other countries.

Some might say, so what? Meat is meat, right?

Well, there are two objections. One is a safety issue. It turns out that horsemeat may contain chemicals - such as phenylbutazone used to treat inflammation -- that are harmful to humans. Unlike with cattle, horse medication and diet are not regulated with an eye on human consumption.

A second objection might seem a bit more obvious -- it is just wrong to label a product as containing beef when it does not. Who can argue with that, right?

So what does this have to do with climate change, I am sure you are asking. The horsemeat scandal came to mind this morning when I was reading David Leonhardt's opinion piece in the New York Times. There is a lot to like in the piece about innovation and clean energy. But there is also horsemeat. (I'm picking on Leonhardt's piece, but it is by no means unique or the most egregious example.)

Leonhardt opens by citing the increasing costs of extreme weather as one of the reasons "for a major government response to climate change" and concludes with:
In the end, the strongest economic argument for an aggressive response to climate change is not the much trumpeted windfall of green jobs. It’s the fact that the economy won’t function very well in a world full of droughts, hurricanes and heat waves.
The extreme weather meme has taken off -- there is no doubt -- but advocates for action take some risk by arguing that the most important reason for action is future extreme weather. The reasons for this have been detailed at length on this blog and in The Climate Fix.

A common reaction to my critique of this argument is to invoke a ends-justify-the-means sort of logic. For instance, right after I commented on Leonhardt's piece on twitter, ASU professor and colleague Clark Miller responded via a Tweet:

This means/end debate has occurred too many times to count on this blog (and its predecessor), and my usual response is to be careful -- Dick Cheney used similar logic when linking 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. What did it matter, the argument went, if people wrongly associated 9/11 with Saddam? He was a bad guy, and if people supported getting rid of him for the wrongs reasons, so what?

Climate campaigners often adopt a similar logic. What does it matter if people wrongly associate recent extreme events and disaster costs with climate change? Responding to it is a good thing, and if people support mitigation action for the wrong reasons, so what?

There are three objections here.

First, an argument that mitigation of greenhouse gases makes sense in terms of decreasing the future costs of extreme events is not a strong one: Even under the assumptions of IPCC, Stern Review, etc. the future costs of extreme events under the most aggressive scenarios of climate change actually decrease as a proportion of GDP.

The second objection is that the discovery of a little horsemeat in lasagne ruins the entire product. You might cite the tasty (and safe) noodles and tomato sauce, but the presence of horsemeat in the product defeats your argument. The science is just not there to connect increasing costs of disasters to climate change, much less individual phenomena like drought, floods and storms. It is horsemeat -- and don't put it into your product lest you compromise the whole package.

The third reason should be obvious but often appears to escape the calculus of many campaigners and journalists. Telling people that their lasagne contains beef, when it actually contains horsemeat is just wrong.