Wealth of Nations June 2006

The Politics of Global Warming

We know what has happened to the climate so far, and we know why. Working out what is going to happen to it from now on is much more difficult.
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You can sense the mood on climate change shifting. Ever since Hurricane Katrina, the mainstream media no longer has a doubt. The problem is real, huge, and urgent: Something must be done. Every storm in the hurricane season just starting will strengthen the conviction. Washington will not be immune, but it has a lot of catching up to do. There is no sign of consensus on the issue. There is little sign, even, of intelligent discussion.

It will be interesting to see whether Al Gore's new movie, An Inconvenient Truth, makes a difference. Gore's documentary, a polished live-action version of the presentation that he has been touring round the country for years, is winning glowing notices. Reviewers declare themselves gripped, charmed, and persuaded. If only this man were president, they more or less say. The same thing has doubtless occurred to Gore. The film would have to do very well to become a springboard for a presidential campaign, of course. Still, even if it falls short of that, the movie may change things.

Global-warming activists, Gore pre-eminent among them, are already regarded by most thinking people as having won the argument. The new movie will seal that victory. Science, facts, levelheaded analysis—inconvenient truths, calmly and convincingly presented—are all on their side, or so it is believed. Global-warming inactivists are going to find themselves regarded, even more than before, as purblind bigots. Their criticisms will be seen as not merely mistaken, but intellectually defunct. To oppose Gore's view of the subject will be to align yourself with, say, advocates of intelligent design. More and more, climate-change denial, or anything that can be characterized as such, will be viewed as a kind of shameful, strutting ignorance.

For remaining waverers on the topic, including many who won't see An Inconvenient Truth, the television advertisements produced by the climate-change inactivists at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, may be as effective in this regard as Gore's film. Their concept—"some call it pollution, we call it life"—would be difficult to parody. Has a piece of political propaganda ever been less convincing? Gore's movie is propaganda too, of course—but of a superior, extremely effective kind.

So the climate-change activists have overrun the intellectual territory. Is this going to yield better policy? Probably not.

To crush their enemy in the propaganda war, the activists are shrewdly alarmist. Everything points to impending catastrophe, they imply. It is not enough that we have a problem that needs addressing. No, the planet is in mortal danger. Life as we know it is in peril. The tagline for Gore's movie is, "The most terrifying film you will ever see."

This assertion of impending global catastrophe makes it difficult to have a discussion about well-calibrated responses. It makes opposing the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases look like a capitulation to ignorant inactivism—though that agreement was not, in fact, a good way to confront the problem, and ratifying it would not have been in America's interests. It makes the weighing of costs and benefits in different carbon-mitigation strategies look like quibbling over the cost of urgent life-or-death treatment. And it makes talk of adapting to climate change—which ought to be part of any sensible policy—look like reckless disregard of an impending existential danger.

So far as I know, there is little scientific dissent from the view that the planet is warming. There is also a strong consensus that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases are the main reason why. But there is no corresponding consensus on the costs and benefits of warming to date. Evidently, the warming experienced up to now does not qualify as a cataclysm: That danger, the activists say, is still in the future. But once you start looking ahead—a century ahead, as you have to, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does in its projections—wide ranges of uncertainty enter in. A forecast for global temperature in 2100 rests on (among other things) a forecast of greenhouse-gas emissions in the interim, and that estimate depends on decades-out forecasts of worldwide economic growth, energy efficiency, and many other variables, even if you assume "business as usual" (which it won't be). To acknowledge those uncertainties is not to deny that global warming is happening, or that policy needs to recognize the risks. But the idea that strong scientific consensus supports the activists' apocalyptic view of the planet's prospects is wrong.

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