Wealth of Nations February 2007

Don't Think I'm Defending Bush, But ...

Once Bush is gone, not every idea that Bush has defended will be regarded as wrong merely for that reason.

Informed public opinion must be coming to the view that there are just two sides in this debate: an intellectually corrupt White House cabal, in pathological denial about the whole issue—and anybody with any expertise in the matter who wants to "move heaven and earth" to attend to the problem.

Don't think I'm defending the president, but it really is a little more complicated than that. So far as I know, nobody with any credentials is denying that the planet is warming, and the overwhelming majority of climate experts think that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) are to blame. On that, the anti-Bush consensus is solid. But there is no such clarity on the costs of climate change—not even on the costs of the warming experienced so far (that question, in fact, get surprisingly little attention).

As for future warming, it seems close to certain that it will happen, but determining how much is very difficult. The IPCC's simulations, which describe wide ranges of possible outcomes, stretch beyond the end of the century. Its numbers for temperature change are based on forecasts of greenhouse-gas emissions, and these in turn are based on forecasts of global economic activity. How much trust would you place in an economic forecast for the year 2010, never mind for 2100 and beyond? The uncertainties are vast, and saying so should not arouse disgust.

This is not to deny the risks, or to argue against changing policy now. I favor a gradually escalating carbon tax as the best, most flexible, and most internationally scalable approach to the problem. (A cap-and-trade regime for greenhouse-gas emissions—an idea that Exxon will hear a lot about at Resources for the Future—can be made to mimic the effects of a carbon tax.) But the huge uncertainties and colossal costs argue for thinking hard before "moving heaven and earth."

My point is this. The awesome obtuseness of the administration on the issue has created a falsely confident and passionate opposing consensus. Attitudes on that side can be just as tyrannical as they are within the White House. In both camps, the view is: You are either with us or against us—and if you're against us, by the way, you're an idiot. Focused on opposing Bush, the global-warming consensus has no appetite for complications and doubts of any sort, about how big a problem this is going to be, or about the best ways of addressing it, even though some of those ways might be immensely expensive.

In this poisoned atmosphere (forgive the expression), government scientists are not the only people being stifled. For instance, some experts have credibly criticized the economic forecasts underlying the IPCC's simulations on technical grounds. That is apparently impermissible: The critics were immediately dismissed as climate-change deniers. Another example: In thinking intelligently about how to respond to climate change, policies aimed at adaptation should be weighed alongside steps to slow the rate of warming. Some mixture of the two is sure to make the best sense. Again, however, to talk of adaptation—to talk of weighing costs against benefits in any methodical way—is to be regarded as an ally of the White House: "Oh, you agree with Bush that global warming is not a problem." Allies of the White House, it goes without saying, are not worth listening to.

Once Bush is gone—and with luck, sooner—anti-Bush sentiment will lose its polarizing force, its power to bind and exclude. At that point, merely opposing Bush, which many have decided will do for now, will no longer be mistaken for a policy agenda. And not every idea that Bush has defended will be regarded as wrong merely for that reason. A more enlightening debate on foreign policy, taxes and global warming might then begin.

The country seems an awfully long way from there at the moment.

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