Good News from the Apocalypse Desk

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg attends a news conference during a Fridays for Future protest in Turin, Italy, December 13, 2019. (Massimo Pinca/Reuters)
It pays to listen to climate scientists every now and then, and what they’re telling us isn’t so discouraging.

For years, the loudest voices in the climate-change conversation sounded like overwrought teenaged girls, so it is only natural that the loudest voice in the climate-change conversation eventually should be that of an actual overwrought teenaged girl, Time magazine person of the year Greta Thunberg. Why settle for Paul Krugman when you can have the real thing?

Listen to the science!” they lecture any would-be deviationist, pretending that a question of politics is a question of science. It’s a fun little status game, if that and being scolded by teenaged girls is what floats your personal boat. De gustibus, etc.

But it does pay to check in with the scientists every now and then. And, as it turns out, they do not sound like overwrought teenaged girls. Not at all. They sound pretty sensible and — don’t tell poor Greta, or poor Professor Krugman! — surprisingly optimistic.

In the closing days of 2019, the International Energy Agency released its annual guidance report, the World Energy Outlook.

“According to the IEA report,” writes David Wallace-Wells of New York, who is not famously an exponent of climate deviationism, “given only current carbon policies, which nearly everyone studying climate considers terribly weak, the world is on track for about 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, which could, if existing pledges were implemented, be brought down as low as 2.7 degrees — about one and a half degrees less warming than is suggested by the U.N.’s IPCC reports in what is often referred to as the ‘business as usual’ ‘RCP8.5’ scenario.”

What does that mean, exactly? That “the window of possible climate futures is probably narrowing,” Wallace-Wells writes, “with both the most optimistic scenarios and the most pessimistic ones seeming, now, less likely.” In the interest of giving an accurate view of Wallace-Wells’s very interesting write-up for those who do not follow my recommendation to go and read it in full, please understand that he views the current situation as “really quite dire” but “certainly better than I’ve thought.” But the very worst-case scenario, and scenarios close to the very worst case, are in this view less likely to come to pass.

That’s a rare bit of good news from the apocalypse desk, and Wallace-Wells’s essay is much more illuminating reading than “How dare you!”

But we live in a “How dare you!” world.

We live in the world of Stephen Porter of London, who writes in the Financial Times: “I would reject all moderate predictions on climate change and would trust only the most extreme, accepting that even the latter will probably greatly underestimate the true consequences of not taking immediate action to counter the human influences on our climate.” Upon what does he base that attitude? His view that “most cosmic events are sudden and cataclysmic.” “Most cosmic events.” In the Financial Times, this is, that salmon-tinted citadel of fuddy-duddery.

Over at Bloomberg, Mark Buchanan effectively argues against honesty (excessive honesty, he’d say) in the climate-change conversation under the headline: “Climate change: Scientists’ honesty is killing their cause.” (Please, do read the entire thing if you suspect I am misrepresenting the article.) Citing psychological research, Buchanan suggests a new kind of discourse, one with certain inconvenient “uncertainties suppressed.” He tries to have it both ways, naturally, since it is unseemly for a journalist to be caught writing a brief for more effective propaganda, and so he backtracks a little: Acknowledge some uncertainty, he says, but not too much, and “whenever possible, put quantitative bounds on it. . . . But there’s a danger in going too far and hiding behind the awesome complexity of the climate system to avoid making strong statements.” Why put quantitative bounds on uncertainty? Because doing so offers a more accurate representation of scientific findings? No, because psychological research suggests that this makes for more effective marketing.

Some of you will remember this infamous quotation from the late Steven Schneider:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

Some of my fellow conservatives can from time to time take a pretty boobtastic attitude toward climate change, that it is a “hoax” or a conspiracy cooked up in Beijing. But one of the reasons some people suspect that climate-change activists are not being entirely straight with them is the fact that climate-change activists keep publishing essays rationalizing why they don’t think they should be entirely straight with skeptics or the uncommitted members of the general public. This isn’t science — it is salesmanship.

Science enjoys well-earned and widespread prestige, and so it makes a handy cudgel in political debates. But the scientific forecasts are the beginning of the climate debate, not the end of it. Properly understood, this is a question of risk mitigation: How much climate risk are we willing to bear, and how much are we willing to pay for a certain level of risk reduction? In my view, there is an excellent case for a Pigovian tax on fossil fuels (and perhaps on some other products) that are likely to exacerbate the risks associated with climate change — the U.S. government is sure to bear much of any climate-change costs, it will need money to do so, and getting that revenue by putting a levy on the negative externalities in question looks like a pretty good policy. I don’t think weepy teenaged girls, or grown men and women in responsible jobs doing their best imitations of weepy teenaged girls, adds anything of great value to that.

(I have a harebrained scheme: Why not substitute a carbon tax for taxes on personal and business income? Let’s make a deal!)

There is some good news on climate change, and our policy debate should incorporate that. But it won’t. Nobody in our Trump-Warren-Kardashian doofus culture is very interested in the IEA — they are interested in Greta Thunberg, in artfully shot heroic photographic portraits, in ritual, redemption, and reconciliation, in the apocalyptic legends familiar from myth and religion, and, of course, in dreaming up ways to shoehorn their preexisting personal desires and political demands into the new mystical-political paradigm. Financial crisis and a subsequent recession? Professor Krugman recommends a big, expensive infrastructure program. World in flames from global warming? Professor Krugman recommends a big, expensive infrastructure program. Psoriasis? Try infrastructure.

Why try infrastructure? Because, as Professor Krugman writes, “scientific persuasion is running into sharply diminishing returns,” and needs to be supplanted by “an effective political strategy.” He insists that “powerful forces on the right” — know your enemy! — “are determined to keep us barreling down the road to hell.” The IEA suggests otherwise. Does that matter? Does that matter to Professor Krugman? Does that matter to you? Or perhaps you simply have a poetical conviction that you possess an ineffable understanding of the true nature of “most cosmic events.”

One cult is as good as another, and mood affiliation is a kind of faith.

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