THE PLANK OCTOBER 2, 2009
There are two main arguments conservatives put forward against cutting carbon emissions. The first is that the science undergirding rising global temperatures is wrong, or uncertain, or that the effect is negligible. Generally this argument relies upon grasping at small bits of data while ignoring their broader context. Here’s a classic example from a recent op-ed column from a climate change skeptic:
One recent conservative op-ed column, for instance, seizes upon a recent New York Times article that cites a recent plateau in global temperatures. The climate change skeptic ignores the fact that the article reports the following…
Scientists say the pattern of the last decade — after a precipitous rise in average global temperatures in the 1990s — is a result of cyclical variations in ocean conditions and has no bearing on the long-term warming effects of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere.
… and simply seizes upon the fact of the plateau to cast doubt upon the science.
Skepticism about the science of climate change has grown less useful (and more ridiculous) over time. Thus many conservatives have leapt to a second argument: fatalism. Having once denied the reality of rising global temperatures, they now say they reality is so stark that there’s nothing we can do about it at all. Here’s a good example of the futility argument:
A recent report from the United Nations Environment Program predicts an enormous 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit increase by the end of the century even if nations fulfill their most ambitious pledges concerning reduction of carbon emissions. The U.S. goal is an 80 percent reduction by 2050. But Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute says that would require reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the 1910 level. On a per capita basis, it would mean emissions approximately equal to those in 1875.
That will not happen. So, we are doomed. So, why try?
Of course, this is also pretty silly. While there’s tremendous consensus that greenhouse gases are causing, and will continue to cause, average global temperatures to rise, there’s great uncertainty as to precisely how much they will rise. So seizing upon either the low end of the projected rise (to argue for complacency) or the high end (to argue for fatalism) is a silly exercise that utterly fails to comprehend probability and statistical range.
Moreover, even if we could be completely certain about the high-end forecasts, what does it mean to say “we are doomed”? It doesn’t mean that humanity will disappear. It means that climate change will bring about a great deal of human suffering. To say “we are doomed” is to wave away the reality that there will be people alive whose suffering we can help mitigate.
Anyway, I find both these arguments tiresome and dishonest. The other thing about them is that they’re completely mutually exclusive. Either climate change is too small a problem to worry about, or it’s too big a problem to deal with. It can’t be both. Yet both the passages I quote above come from the same author, George F. Will. They even appear in the same column.