Those working to raise awareness about climate change have a problem. While most Americans believe global warming is occurring and think human activities are causing it, fewer than half think it will pose a serious threat to the planet in their lifetimes.
So what do those seeking drastic change do? They publish predictions of imminent catastrophe based on computer models, threatening doom and gloom unless dramatic measures are taken immediately. When that fails, they change the deadline and try again. And the shifting dates for climate Armageddon are just one reason the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may do harm to its cause than good.
The IPCC claims that if the world doesn’t undertake a massive effort to reduce carbon emissions by 2030, the result will be catastrophic — including mass wildfires, droughts, floods, food shortages, and dying coral reefs. The prescription offered to save the world by the 91 scientists who signed off on the report is a massive tax increase on carbon-dioxide emissions, as much as $27,000 per ton by the end of the century. That could cripple economies across the globe.
The trouble is, it’s hard to keep track of all the predictions we’ve heard in the last 20 years about impending catastrophes. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, which won him an Oscar as well as a Nobel Peace Prize, floated a wide array of assertions and predictions about warming that were either in error or exaggerations. Since then a number of environmental groups have talked about carbon emissions needing to be cut by 2012 (the World Wildlife Federation), 2016 (International Energy Agency), or 2018 (U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change).
Now the IPCC tells us we have until 2030, but the longer period to take action is accompanied by heightened predictions of calamities. In the past, the IPCC said that bad things would happen if greenhouse gases were not curbed and global temperatures rose 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over what we estimate the temperature was in the 1850s, when large-scale industrial burning of coal began. Now they tell us that the world will be cooked if the increase is only 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
In order to prevent that, the IPCC claims that by 2030 carbon emissions must be reduced 45 percent from the levels they were at 2010 and then reduced 100 percent — “net zero,” where any carbon emissions are canceled out by efforts to remove carbon from the air — by 2050. That means wind and solar energy must become the prime means of producing electricity and coal must effectively be eliminated. The price of gas for cars and electricity for home use will therefore rise dramatically.
Why aren’t Americans responding to this challenge?
Part of the answer stems from a lack of trust in those making these predictions and demanding these sacrifices. Any skepticism about the most extreme global-warming predictions is considered “anti-science” or a form of “denial.” The climate-change movement is so resistant to the skepticism that is an inherent part of the scientific method that laymen sense they are being played.
There isn’t much debate about the fact that temperatures have gone up slightly in recent decades, and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that human activity has contributed to this trend. Moreover, to deny that the climate can change is to demonstrate ignorance of history. We know that the world warmed around the first millennium and then cooled considerably a few hundred years later, and then went into what historians call the “little ice age” in the mid 17th and early 18th centuries. Both those cooling periods are considered to be the result of diminished solar activity. While warming is now considered to be a deadly threat, the higher temperatures in the aftermath of those cool periods were associated with longer growing seasons for agriculture and a boon to humanity.
Even if we assume that warming is accelerating to some extent and that carbon emissions are part of the reason, the notion that slight increases in temperature will set off catastrophes is based on computer models, not proven facts. Doubts about the veracity of their assumptions frustrate climate scientists and their publicists, but their furious resistance to even the most reasonable questions about their recommendations, such as those put forward by Danish skeptic Bjorn Lomborg, undermine trust in their thesis.
The effort to silence critics strikes those being asked to pay the bill for their conclusions as suspicious. The same applies to the hysteria attached to their predictions and the intellectually sloppy way they attempt to associate normal weather events such as hurricanes with theories about rising temperatures.
As even the New York Times noted in a remarkably candid report published in August 2017 as last year’s storm season began, the connection between hurricanes and global warming is far from certain. While computer models predict increased storms in the future, as of now, there is no evidence that this is the case.
More important, it’s clear that climate scientists think the only way to spur action is to put forward the most extreme scenarios — setting time limits before glaciers melt, the seas overflow, and the land masses bake — rather than to speak about problems that might be managed. Yet this hysteria has had the opposite effect. Every dire prediction sounds more like cheap political manipulation than like sober science.
And if Republicans are far more skeptical than Democrats, as Gallup has found, it may have to do with the feeling that the demands for carbon cutbacks are actually a punishment of the West for its economic success and innovation. Not all in the GOP may agree with President Donald Trump’s conviction that warming is a “hoax,” but most share his belief that the costs of the proposals for averting climate change are out of proportion to their benefits. Lowering the temperature threshold and moving the dates for climate catastrophe won’t convince anyone. To the contrary, it merely reinforces the idea that the groups like the IPCC are not to be trusted.
If climate scientists really want to win over the public, they need to get rid of the hyperbole as well as the anti-industrial wish list. Until that happens or the earth turns into a desert, ordinary Americans will continue to resist the U.N.’s effort to hamstring the global economy.