Energy & Environment

Don’t Apologize for Being Honest about Climate Change

(Photo: Gualtiero Boffi/Dreamstime)
A response to Ross Douthat’s lukewarm lukewarmism

Writing about climate change in the New York Times, Ross Douthat describes “lukewarmers” as those who:

accept that the earth is warming and that our civilization’s ample CO2 emissions are a major cause. They doubt, however, that climate change represents a crisis unique among the varied challenges we face, or that the global regulatory schemes advanced to deal with it will work as advertised. And they raise an eyebrow at the contrast between the apocalyptic, absolutist rhetoric with which these schemes are regularly defended and their actual details, which seem mostly designed to enable the globe’s statesmen to greenwash the pursuit of economic and political self-interest.

Douthat placed himself among the lukewarmers and very graciously referred his readers to some of my recent work for a longer discussion of those themes. But his column was also quite gracious in conceding two problems with lukewarmism, which instead deserve rebuttal.

Douthat’s Problem #1: “No less than alarmism, lukewarmism can be vulnerable to cherry-picking and selection bias, reaching for any piece of evidence — and when you’re dealing with long-term trends, there’s a lot of evidence to choose from — that supports its non-catastrophic assumptions, even if the bulk of the data starts to point the other way.”

This is a generic critique that might apply to any position on any issue. School-choice advocacy is vulnerable to cherry-picking and selection bias, as is support for universal pre-K. So are the claims that Scandinavian-style welfare states are good or bad for innovation and economic growth. And the claims that an interventionist U.S. foreign policy promotes or harms our national interest. Highlighting such a complaint about lukewarmism would make sense only if the position were uniquely reliant on such bad behavior.

To the contrary, the key hypothesis (of my work, anyway) is that even working from the mainstream scientific and economic studies advanced by alarmists, the data do not support a conclusion of catastrophe. That is, the effects identified by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are serious but manageable. The economic costs identified by the Obama administration’s Social Cost of Carbon analysis are no larger than those associated with a variety of other policy issues.

Of course, plenty of people cherry-pick this or that study in an effort to undermine the mainstream conclusions of climate science. But such analysis is unnecessary to a moderate view of climate change and, I would argue, often counterproductive. Lukewarmism is, or should be, about describing accurately the mainstream of climate research and then assessing how well human society’s resilience and capacity for adaptation will allow it to cope with the challenges we might face.

Douthat’s Problem #2: “While lukewarmers may fancy ourselves serious interlocutors for liberals, we’re actually just running interference on behalf of know-nothing and do-nothingism, attacking flawed policies on behalf of a Republican Party that will never, ever advance any policies of its own.”

This mistakes an argument about the nature of the climate problem for one about the ideal solution. Lukewarmism is an effort to provide much needed perspective and context on the climate debate. Importantly, it is a corrective to the outlandish claims of catastrophe, made by environmental activists, that bear no relationship to mainstream research — they can hardly complain that others are taking the time to point this out. If we want the public to interpret correctly the implications of climate change, the correct interpretation should be given a vigorous defense. Insisting that policy deliberations begin from an appropriate policy definition does not worsen the quality of those deliberations and is not “running interference.”

Further, climate policies are typically flawed in ways that remain obvious regardless of how seriously one takes climate change. Obama’s Clean Power Plan was costly, it was an illegitimate expansion of federal power, and it would not have materially affected global temperatures. The Paris Agreement was an absurd piece of political theater that disadvantaged the United States and endorsed the developing world’s refusal to take serious climate action. These observations hold equally well if one is ice cold, lukewarm, or boiling mad.

But sometimes a firm grasp of the problem matters a lot, and then the lukewarmer’s obligation is to apply his conclusions honestly. If someone proposes truly radical solutions that might avert climate change at unfathomable cost, lukewarmers should decry the overreaction. Likewise, if someone rejects sensible policies that have concrete benefits by rejecting any cause for concern, lukewarmers should insist they be serious. As I wrote for Fox News when Trump signed his executive order on the topic, “Trump Is Wrong on Climate Change”:

We should want government planners at every level to take the best existing research into account as they make public investments and set policy that will influence others. If farmers and resort owners and mayors and naval planners all build with an eye toward how the future might change, then those changes as they arrive won’t be so harmful or expensive.

Yet, in addition to starting the repeal of costly mitigation efforts like Obama’s Clean Power Plan, Trump’s executive order entirely erases an Obama order aimed at “preparing the United States for the impacts of Climate Change.” Many of the points in that program still make sense. Perhaps the greatest mistake made by those who overinflate the risk of climate change is to forget that our society has a tremendous capacity to adapt and innovate. But it would also be a major mistake to forget that public policy can either foster or hinder that process. 

Certainly, that’s no comprehensive agenda. But it is a message that the politicians and policymakers of both parties would benefit from hearing.


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