In my experience, the first thing everyone wants to know when they discover they’re in the company of a self-identified conservative is what he thinks about climate change (what he thinks about gay marriage is usually a close second, though even that’s becoming a bit passé).
As is so often the case with political crusades the fashionable left appears to be winning, one’s position on climate change is fast becoming little more than a sort of status signifier, with “correct” views serving as a proxy for respectability and sanity, while critical, unorthodox, or contrarian views bring warnings of madness and ignorance. Orthodox climate change opinions are associated with respectable things like nature and scientists; unorthodox ones are tied to horrible things like Republicans and, with the growing popularity of the slur “denier,” the Holocaust.
Such an ultra-judgemental dichotomy hasn’t exactly done great things for the intellectual vigour of the larger climate change debate. People— especially people eagerly courting elite approval or elite standing — don’t necessarily understand anything substantial about the issue one way or another, but clamour to support the “right side” just the same, since the alternative is so culturally stigmatized. Increasingly, it’s a conversation that’s over before it even begins.
My own, somewhat less insecure approach is to deconstruct the matter into a series of sub-questions, and engage with those. Climate change, after all, is less a single take-it-or-leave it preposition than a series of interlocking concerns, some of which have vastly harder answers than others.
Is climate change real? Well it depends what sort of climate we’re referring to, and how exactly it’s supposed to be changing.
We used to talk about “global warming,” but that term’s fallen out of fashion for being too specific.
According to the Met Office — Britain’s leading weather institute— the “ten hottest years on record” all occurred after 1998. Yet the years after 1998 also reveal a sort of “pause” in the increase of warming, meaning those last 16 hot years form a smooth plateau that continues to this day. “The case of the missing heat,” as Nature put it, and “the biggest mystery in climate science today.”
This unexpectedly missing heat, in turn, caused some embarrassment last year when it was revealed that 114 of the last 117 global warming predictions of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been somewhat off — and all off in the direction of “overestimated global warming,” to once again quote Nature. Subsequent predictions have back-peddled accordingly, with the fifth IPCC congress now predicting the world will heat up somewhere between 1 to 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.
Will the results be catastrophic? Well, considering that a warming increase below two degrees is considered relatively innocuous, in the words of Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal, this means, by the IPPC’s own estimates, “there is a better than 50-50 chance that by 2083, the benefits of climate change will still outweigh the harm.” To be fair, that also means there’s a 50% chance the harm will outweigh the benefit, with the harm in question entailing rising sea levels, droughts, wilting forests, and all the rest of it.
We’re supposed to regard such vast ambiguities as the stuff of “settled science.” And perhaps it is, in the sense the findings in question are the result of scientific methods and standards universally regarded as rigorous and sound by the academy. Yet there can still exist a great deal of space between a science that is academically legitimate and a science capable of accurately predicting the short-term future. It’s for this reason I’ve never seen anything particularly fringy about having some healthy climate change skepticism — without necessarily going so far as to embrace the demonized label of climate skeptic, proper.
The more interesting question, in any case, is whether the phenomena of climate change is something we can stop, or even reverse; whether we can continue the present “pause” forever, or even go back to pre-19998 temperatures — and even more particularly, whether the many things our governments are insisting we do in the name of “fighting” the worst-case scenario, the four-degree future, are in fact, practical, realistic means to achieving this goal.
President Obama announced last week he wants to see American power plants cut their total carbon-dioxide emissions 30% by 2030. Sometime next year, the Environmental Protection Agency will decree unique Co2 reduction expectations for each state depending on how much they’re polluting at present — Texas will have a higher hill to climb than Oregon, for instance — and if the states don’t pass their own regulations to meet these goals a few years after that, the EPA will impose some. Mostly, the hope is that states will move to shut down their dirty coal-fired plants — of which there are about 500 across America — and move to cleaner renewables, like solar and wind.
The US Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like this. They say fallout from plant closures will result in the loss of millions of jobs, and the ensuing shift to less efficient methods of power generation will provoke a dramatic spike in electricity prices. This, in turn, will percolate throughout the larger economy, with the final price tag totalling some $51 billion in lost economic output.
It’s a story that will sound familiar to many Canadians, particularly those in Ontario, where that province’s similarly-motived 2009 Green Energy Act is now blamed for hiking the cost of electricity nearly 300%, and thus helping dramatically spike the cost of doing business.
The EPA claims the Chamber’s numbers are wrong, but on some level, it shouldn’t really matter. Fighting climate change is not something you do because it’s good for the economy, it’s something you do in spite of crass economic worries because it represents an existential threat to the survival of humanity itself.
But, as the old saying goes, America can’t save the world all by its lonesome. American Co2 emissions — which have actually been declining in recent years, and are presently at a 20-year low — only represent about one-fifth of global pollution, with the greenhouse gasses produced by the combined might of India, Russia, and China comprising something closer to 30%. I listened to the inaugural speech of the new Indian prime minister the other day; though he made reference to climate change, when it came to emissions he spoke only of “mitigation,” not regulation. The new leader of the Chinese Communist Party, meanwhile has followed a similar path during his first year in office, worrying loudly but doing little of substance to help reverse his own country’s greenhouse emissions — which have more than doubled since 2000 and continue to climb. And of course we all know Russia’s stance on fossil fuels.
President Obama has stated that his government’s regulations are intended, at least in part, to set an “example” for other nations, and prove that America is “serious” about climate change, tacitly conceding — ironically, as many global warming ultra-doomsdayers already do — that nothing America does on the pollution front really matters on any level but the symbolic.
To be sure, Americans will enjoy having the air they breathe — already some of the cleanest in the world — become slightly cleaner, and I’m sure the well-connected folks who tend to benefit the most from “green” energy contracts will enjoy their newfound riches. But in terms of whether the economic costs associated with waging a prolonged war against coal power and imposing a bevy of fresh energy regulations on every state are a price worth paying to secure Mr. Obama’s legacy as the president who “cared” about solving a looming climate crisis that might not be solvable and may not even be a crisis — well, that’s some science that really needs settling.