Wealth of Nations April 2007

Global Warming: Winners and Losers

Scientific evidence does not affirm Al Gore's most alarming hypotheticals about global warming or the costly changes in policy he recommends.

The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy recently published a new opinion survey. It found that the number of Americans who say that global warming is a serious problem now stands at 83 percent, up from an already impressive 70 percent in 2004. Nearly two-thirds of those polled said they believe that the threat to the country from environmental hazards such as air pollution and global warming is as grave as the danger posed by terrorists.

In other words, the battle for public opinion is over. The global-warming "skeptics"—for present purposes, let us define the term to mean those who deny that the planet is warming, or that human activities are chiefly to blame—have been routed. Best of all for the victorious global-warming activists, championed by Al Gore, the losers don't seem to know they have lost. As long as these deny-everything skeptics keep talking, Gore and his followers can plausibly position themselves as sensible realists. They can claim, with apparent justification, that the science is entirely on their side, and they can paint their critics as idiots. The result is that no intellectual discipline is brought to bear. There is no real argument, no honing of positions, no gathering of wisdom—and no movement toward good policy.

The triumphant confidence of the Gore tendency is both intellectually false and dangerous. Gore claims that scientists overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, support his position. In one way, this is true. If his position means rejecting the view, still expressed by many of his critics, that the whole global-warming issue is a hoax, or just some fiendish conspiracy to enslave taxpayers and God-fearing gun owners, then yes, scientists overwhelmingly support his position. If the battle of ideas on this question is between Gore and that kind of skeptic, then yes, scientists overwhelmingly back Gore. From that base, Gore can claim—and get away with claiming—that science supports everything else he says or implies on the subject. This is the victory that the deny-everything skeptics have handed him.

In An Inconvenient Truth, and in a reprise of the movie that he gave to lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week, Gore invoked the image of 20-foot rises in sea level. Remember the maps showing an inundated Florida, nothing but water where Holland used to be, and so forth? The newest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—whose pronouncements Gore regards as holy writ when they suit him—projected a rise in sea level of between 10 and 24 inches, on a business-as-usual basis, by the end of this century. (The new estimate, by the way, is lower than the IPCC's previous figure.) A rise of this magnitude would be a problem but not a catastrophe. So you don't hear much about that. It is not dramatic enough to feature very prominently in the Gore worldview.

Gore says, rightly, that the catastrophic sea-level scenarios he focuses on would require the near-total melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf and/or the ice on Greenland. The most-pessimistic projections that I am aware of expect those changes to take further centuries of elevated temperatures, and the standard models say millenniums. But the point is, on questions like this the science is uncertain: There is no consensus on such risks. Of course, Gore wants people to believe that such catastrophic scenarios are not so remote, and that climate scientists almost unanimously affirm his sense of desperate urgency—his talk of a "planetary emergency." But the fact is, the further you move beyond a) the planet is warming, and b) human influences are important, the weaker the scientific consensus gets. The science, such as it is, does not at present affirm Gore's most alarming hypotheticals, still less the abrupt and enormously costly changes in policy that he recommends.

A few climate scientists, despite their distaste for the deny-everything skeptics, are starting to point this out. But I wouldn't say that their message is coming through loud and clear. And I can understand their hesitation. To raise any sort of objection to the Gore worldview is to invite derision and contempt. The Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg gave testimony alongside Gore last week. Lomborg is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, a book that provided compelling evidence that environmental activists have tended to exaggerate current and foreseeable hazards. That makes him the contemporary equivalent of a medieval heretic. He is not in fact a global-warming skeptic in the sense I just defined—but he is not much alarmed about the danger and believes that other global development priorities are more pressing. His thinking might be wrong—I believe that it is mostly right—but, in any event, it surely cannot be an illegitimate point of view. Well, Google the name to get a taste of the vituperation and outright character assassination that you draw down upon yourself by adopting such a position.

The prevailing ethic of intellectual corruption is the one identified by my colleague Jonathan Rauch in his column in this magazine on March 10. He quoted an environmentalist who said he chose not to speak honestly about the prospects for successfully adapting to climate change, because, as this man put it, "In the current political situation, I don't want to provide any ammunition for the moral cretins who are squirming frantically to avoid policies that might impact their corporate donors." There speaks a moral cretin, if I ever heard one.

The discussion that needs to start is among people who recognize that the issue is real but who can differ—without rage or sneering—on the severity and urgency of the problem, and on how best to proceed. Where are those people?

I have offered my own suggestion for first steps more than once. It is mainstream, uncontroversial economics. Introduce an initially moderate carbon tax (for which, as it happens, there would be a strong case even if global warming were not an issue) with a presumption that this will be raised over time, unless our fears about climate change turn out to be exaggerated. Use the proceeds to cut other taxes, and to finance an accelerated program of research on carbon capture, clean-coal technologies, and other low-carbon energy sources; on technologies for adaptation (because whatever happens, we seem likely to have to live with further warming); and on possible catastrophic discontinuities in the outlook (such as an unexpectedly sudden melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice or the breakdown of the Gulf Stream, and other alarming possibilities that remain shrouded in scientific uncertainty).

Gore's view is that this is a failure to match thinking to the scale and urgency of the problem. He proposes much bigger and more sudden changes in economic policy, a proliferating array of new environmental regulations, an instantly severe cap-and-trade regime for carbon emissions, and other measures amounting to an abrupt and massive reorientation of the economy. He claims, again, the overwhelming support of climate scientists in this—but that claim is false. Many no doubt do agree, and are willing to lend their scientific credentials to these demands. But many others, and I would guess most, simply have nothing to say on these aspects of the matter, regarding them as lying outside their areas of expertise and preferring not to be Lomborged if they can help it.

I used to think that the upshot of global-warming alarmism would be a surge of political pieties amounting to nothing. I still think that this more or less sums up the European response (which Gore praises as an example to the rest of the world), enshrined in the incompetence and hypocrisy of the Kyoto Protocol (which Gore likewise applauded). Talk about it endlessly; sign big bold international treaties about it; and see nothing much change. This is Europe's specialty. Because I believe that climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed, I used to fear that the result of Europe's impotent posturing and America's abdication of leadership on the matter would be too little action. Now I'm looking at that Yale Center survey and wondering if I was right.

Gore has conducted an astonishingly successful campaign—helped, as I say, by the dismal quality of his principal opponents. I think he has changed the political calculus, and it was tending in his direction to start with. Even if it has to wait for the next administration, Washington is going to wade into this issue. If it can settle for a carbon tax, well and good, and I will let Gore take some credit. But will that satisfy the growing demands for action? The scope for misdirected policy is vast—see Gore's 10-point plan to reshape our lives—with costs that could run into the trillions of dollars. I don't know if the overwhelming majority of climate scientists would agree with me, but something along those lines now looks a distinct possibility.

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