The Corner

Energy & Environment

As Paris Shows, Our Climate Debate Is Impossible to Navigate

As today has shown once again, one of the key problems with our debate over the ideal climate policy is that those who drive the conversation simply refuse to draw a bright enough line between the problem and the response. It is possible for a person to hold simultaneously that a) man is having some effect on the climate; b) our discussion of this effect is prone toward alarmism; and c) what to do about this problem is a matter of legitimate and necessary debate. Indeed, an awful lot of people hold exactly these positions. Do those hyperbolizing over the withdrawal from the Paris Accord understand that?

It seems that they do not. For far too many environmentalists, disagreement with their coveted remedies& — or even their nonbinding accords! — is akin to “denial” of the ailment per se. Thus to oppose, say, a carbon tax is to be accused of “hating science”; to dislike the Paris Accord is to be “pro-coal”; and to propose that we are just as likely to lower emissions sustainably by replacing traditional methods of energy procurement with fracking or nuclear power as to give carte blanche to Tom Steyer is to be a wannabe killer of Indonesian kids. Today, as ever, the debate over the best course has been marked by all-or-nothing propositions. Believe that climate change is real? Then you must believe New York will soon be underwater. Don’t believe New York will soon be underwater? Then you don’t believe climate change is real. Etc.

That this is a farcical way of looking at the question becomes obvious if we transpose the setting of the debate. Imagine, by way of example, if anyone who agreed that ISIS was a threat was informed that they had therefore to acquiesce to an invasion of Syria. Would they not laugh? And imagine if that person, having expressed opposition to the idea of an invasion, was then told that they “didn’t care” about ISIS. How, I wonder, would we expect them to react? Certainly not constructively. Indeed, we might expect them to become rather annoyed — especially if they were informed that there was only one way to deal with the problem, and that dissenting from it indicated an indifference toward children.

And here’s the thing: Most people are not indifferent toward children. Rather, they are prone to balancing the perceived threat and the proposed remedy, and acknowledging that both carry significant risks. Which is to say that the question of climate change is an economic, not a religious, matter, and that the question of what to do is as important as the question of what is happening in the first place. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

Wide open . . . are the political questions of what exactly can and should be done about any genuine changes in climate — and at what cost; of whether some climatological alterations are in fact a reasonable price to pay for the astonishing improvements in life expectancy and material wellbeing that the industrial revolution has yielded; of whether man is better off attempting to leverage his ingenuity and to outrun Gaia as he has outrun Malthus; and of at what cost to our liberty and our safety any amendments to our way of life might come.

People can disagree on the the answers to these questions in good faith. But it is harder and harder for them to do so amid the hysteria that grips this topic. Today we are being told simultaneously that the Paris Accord wasn’t worth leaving because it was non-binding — that, in the words of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, it does “LITERALLY NOTHING”and that leaving it is a major blow to the survival of our species. When these are the choices, it’s unsurprising that people who have more nuanced views choose instead to go to the pub.


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