Energy & Environment

For a Sensible Approach to Climate Change

A jogger runs along the Charles River past the Boston skyline (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Conservatives can accept the evidence while pushing for acceptable solutions.

Conrad Black thinks President Trump “has not received adequately grateful recognition for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and effectively scuttling the Clean Power Plan.” In the spirit of diplomatic disagreement, I have some thoughts on Black’s assertion that “man-made global warming” is a “complete fiction”; his argument that the idea of global warming is “not borne out by much evidence, and so has awkwardly largely given way to climate change — which is only a step from weather change”; and his revisionist history of the environmental movement.

The notion that the climate is changing as a result of carbon emissions, Black says, was “miraculously conjured” and remains “unsubstantiated.” But most of Black’s argumentative work is done via the insertion of the unestablished adjective, and his major gesture toward empirical evidence is this: “Using British Meteorological Office figures, global temperature appeared to rise more quickly in the last 15 years of the 20th century than the first 15 years of this century, although 2016 and 2017 were relatively warm years. Almost all tentative conclusions are within reasonable margins of error, and the mass of data is too ambiguous to support any of the more emphatic claims of factions in the climate debate.”

2016 and 2017 weren’t just “relatively warm years” — they were the hottest years on record. NASA and the NOAA put the five hottest years in the global record in the 2010s and the 20 hottest years in the years since 1995. As for the British Meteorological Office, it announced this January that 2017 surpassed 2016 as the hottest year on record. See this NASA/GISS graph of global average temperatures since the NCDC record began:

Evidence is abundant that the climate is changing because of greenhouse-gas emissions. We have known about the greenhouse effect since Svante Arrhenius described it in the 1890s, and we have been modeling the climate since scientists at MIT, Scripps, Stanford, Columbia, and Exxon, among others, began doing so in the 1960s and ’70s. “Most of their approximate estimates of atmospheric temperature,” Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute tells me, “turned out to be pretty accurate.” We know the Earth is hot and getting hotter, we know from ice-core data that atmospheric CO2 levels are far higher than they have been in millennia, and we know that the changing climate is affecting planetary biodiversity and melting ice at an accelerating pace. All of this, and more, is well established; none of it is that ambiguous.

Of course there are plenty of things about climate change that can be debated, including the efficacy and wisdom of certain policies like the Paris climate agreement or the Clean Power Plan, the magnitude and temporality of the risks climate change poses, and the priorities of advocates who reject anything besides command-and-control policies. Oren Cass is a policy analyst who stakes out an alternative position on the issue, what many call the “lukewarm” approach. Cass accepts climate science but doubts the predictions of economic and humanitarian catastrophe that many politicians and activists advance, placing an emphasis instead on our adaptability. He deploys mainstream scientific forecasts to argue that the challenge posed by climate change is real but likely not catastrophic. From a policy standpoint, it’s just like any other issue: It doesn’t require a fundamental restructuring of public resources, or so goes the argument.

Here Cass differs from climate activists such as Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, or Bill McKibben, who argues that we “need to literally declare war on climate change.” In their view, capitalist greed and an extractive ethic of domination are the root of the problem, which is soon to become a cataclysm. The only solution is to end global capitalism, institute a series of payments from Western countries to the global South, and resort to a sort of socialist communitarianism. They wave away potential fixes such as geo-engineering or a move to nuclear energy because these don’t sufficiently uproot capitalism. It might be objected that this position puts the political cart before the climate horse in a way that just so happens to align with its advocates’ preferences: If mitigating the threat of climate change is the desideratum, why prioritize an unlikely and arguably incoherent local–global movement over more-pragmatic incremental fixes?

But Black’s column is more similar to Klein’s and McKibben’s stance than to, say, Cass’s, attributing as it does sinister motivations to organic outcomes brought about by ordinary people. His history of environmentalism contains several dubious claims: that the global-warming idea originates from the Willach Conference (marginal compared with the birth of climate science at universities and energy companies); that the warming argument, on the verge of collapsing, gave way to the term “climate change” (scientists prefer that term because the effects of CO2 extend beyond planetary warming); that Norway developed the idea of switching to nuclear power for its cleanliness (the move came in reaction to the oil-price shocks of the 1970s); that Sweden’s nuclear push was the genesis of the modern environmentalist movement (that originated in the U.S. as a response to industrial and agrochemical pollution), or that the acid-rain provisions of the Clean Air Act were a “dress rehearsal for the global-warming myth” (the provisions were implemented by George H. W. Bush in response to a terrestrial pollution problem).

And his critique of Barack Obama and the Paris agreement is in tension with itself, mocking the idea that Trump’s pulling out of these programs could threaten the planet yet also declaring that it and the Clean Power Plan represented “an outright assault on American capitalism and economic growth.” Many conservatives have praised Trump for leaving the Paris agreement on the grounds that it was 1) a treaty not subject to the proper ratification process and 2) a nonbinding agreement that allowed countries to set their emissions goals and would therefore not have a meaningful practical effect. But the agreement cannot be simultaneously toothless and an existential threat to the global economy.

We shouldn’t cede reasonable ground in the climate discussion. It risks undermining those right-of-center political figures (such as Steven F. Hayward, Bob Inglis, Carlos Curbelo, Jay Faison, and George P. Shultz) who are tackling the issue with clear eyes. Against the idea that a restructuring of capitalism is necessary, yet unwilling to ignore the empirical evidence, several conservatives have developed compelling cases for funding geo-engineering technology and research, implementing market-based policies like a carbon tax or tax credits for carbon capture, and loosening regulations on nuclear power plants. In their work is the makings of a constructive agenda.

Yet conservatives interested in intelligent approaches to climate change are often met with charges of insincerity from a left-wing activist camp that sees our entire side as blinkered, conspiratorial, and unwilling to accept the reality of the debate. Rather than strive to make that caricature a reality, we ought to tackle the climate-change issue by acknowledging the unambiguous evidence that carbon emissions are changing the climate, and unleashing the adaptive ingenuity of human beings to tackle the problem.

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