Ever since the debate broke out over climate change, the world’s attention has been riveted on computer-driven horror stories and the positively silly idea of establishing global-weather control by actively managing the atmosphere’s greenhouse-gas emissions. This focus has gathered up a lethal coalition of people with diverse motivations for promoting it. I call it a lethal coalition because, for nearly 20 years, this coalition has killed off any attempt to look at climate change through a rational lens, and to look at climate policy in a pragmatic way.
Environmentalists, who have long espoused a version of humankind as an energy-powered cancer on the Earth, see greenhouse-gas controls as a way to starve out the tumor of humanity. Many scientists, unable to look beyond linear thinking, can’t get past the idea that the only answer to change is to impose stability. Temperance fiends of all stripes–who’ve hated fossil fuels, cars, large houses, urban sprawl, highways, rich people, fat people, industrial economies, airplanes, meat consumption, non-recycled paper, and just about everything else that might make someone smile–see energy rationing via greenhouse-gas controls as the answer to their prayers.
One-worlders and other socialist sorts have seen the potential for finally giving the U.N. control over all the “commanding heights” of the world by giving them control of a key driver of development. Hollywood, of course, has always known that disaster sells movie tickets. And rent-seeking companies and governments that compete with the U.S. seek to use greenhouse-gas controls to give them an edge over their competition. In the past, if one failed to believe extreme computer-modeling exercises, or shied away from putting the world on an energy diet, the lethal coalition was unanimous in damning you as some kind of tobacco scientist, flat-earther, or most recently, a holocaust denier.
Recently, however, there are signs that the lethal coalition may be in trouble. In a trend that should be worrisome to those who believe the value of science lies in its authority, alarmist climate scientists are increasingly the object of derision by people with enough power to reach even the general public. Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, for example, has educated millions of readers about climate science. Parody sites such as The Onion and ecoenquirer.com are heaping scorn on scientists who are increasingly sounding like angry authoritarian oracles.
Some establishment scientists seem to be getting the message that they may have overplayed their hands and become more parody than prophet. In just the last few weeks, two studies in major journals (Nature and Geophysical Research Letters) dump cold water on the high-end horror-story estimates coming out from modelers seeking ever higher-end scenarios to publicize. The articles, which cast a gimlet eye on climate-model predictions, show that more likely estimates for doubling of the world’s carbon-dioxide level (which many argue will never happen) would produce a warming between 1.5 – 4.5 degrees Celsius, with only a 15-percent chance of going higher than 4.5 degrees. Not a walk in the park, but not the stuff of Hollywood-disaster epics.
And other scientists seem to have figured out that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. One used to hear near unanimity among the scientists beating the drum of climate alarmism. There was, invariably, only one possible course of action supported by “the consensus of scientists”: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions immediately, even if it meant the collapse of national economies. Not any more. On April 18, a group of 90 scientists wrote an open letter to Canada’s prime minister observing that “Advances in climate science . . . have provided more evidence supporting the need for action and development of a strategy for adaptation for projected changes.” The group goes on to emphasize that as “mitigation measures will become effective only after many years . . . adaptive strategies are essential and must begin now.”
These cracks in the climate coalition are excellent signs that rationality might win out in the debate over climate change and climate policy. The world needs more brave scientists to step up to the plate, disavow the hunt for ever-scarier scenarios, and join a meaningful discussion of what we might do to protect future generations from climate variability.
[Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since posting.]
–Kenneth Green is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.