The timing isn't coincidental: as the Copenhagen climate talks begin, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue a formal "endangerment" finding for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In doing so, the agency is giving the administration what amounts to a cattle prod. Having "found" that CO2 is a "public danger," and having taken the requisite administrative steps, the executive branch now believes it has the power to unilaterally impose carbon and greenhouse gas emissions caps on industry in the United States. This overhanging boot will threaten to drop until and unless Congress acts. It's a neat executive weapon to have -- one that, incidentally, the Bush administration chose not to take out of the locker, and one that the Obama administration decided to unsheathe as the president prepares to travel to Copenhagen.
aside, here's what we know: a blanket of greenhouse gases is
suffocating the earth. The thickness of this blanket is highly
correlated with human activity, including deforestation and
development. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying oceans and
destroying corral reefs -- the bottom of the food chain. Most
scientists strongly believe, but do not know for sure,
that temperatures will rise fairly steadily over the next century,
throwing human life as we know it into chaos. It is hard to get rid of
carbon dioxide, so the natural policy to reverse or stall the warming
trend would be to reduce the amount of carbon emitted. Much of the
science is settled, but parts of it,
particularly temperature projections, are subject to large margins of
error -- though often, this error redounds
to the benefit of those scientists whose projections were too conservative.
a small chance -- tiny even -- that anthropomorphic global warming is
harmless; there is a somewhat larger chance that its effects can't be
mitigated -- or that mitigation will be costly for development and
gross domestic product.
spending tens of millions of dollars to seize on that small chance, to
create a haze of science-sounding claims, to put together the shreds of
doubt ( Example: data from tree ring measures since 1960 do not
always correlate well with other proxies for temperature, including
coral reefs.Most likely, the problem is one of measurement -- either a
flaw in experimental design or a change in the measurement environment
-- i.e., global warming itself. That's why scientists who model climate
change tend to adjust for the unusual post-1960 density readings.
Mostly, they've done so openly and repeatedly -- and there is plenty of
vigorous debate about why they're do so. ) to seize on
overzealous projections by leading (but human) climate science -- to
call the whole enterprise into question and to ensure that whatever
scheme is implemented to reduce CO2 emissions, it will be done fairly
and fairly slowly.
They've been successful
although there's surely a correlation with the rise in general economic
anxiety. American politics has allowed a false equivalency
to perpetuate itself, which isn't surprising. In a highly religious
country, it takes more than scientific consensus to drive policy and
change minds. There is also a strong relationship
a vote against emissions caps and the like, the amount of carbon
emitted by a district, its relative (lack of) weath and potential to be
harmed by a mitigation scheme, and political conservatism. That's one
reason why the policy debate has become so polarized. Again, it's not
about evidence. It is compelling -- and remains so
skeptics who aren't motivated by money -- and there are some -- have
appropriated the language and posture of the original heretic, Galileo,
casting themselves as brave souls arguing against the consensus,
shaming people who would otherwise shut out their dissenting voices.
It's a neat trick in and of itself -- using scientific axioms to try
and discredit science. In general, good science can and should
incorporate the doubts, but climate science has become extraordinarily
Climate change scientists aren't
blameless. The future of planet earth is at stake, and while the
evidence on their side, but they've also conceived of and executed a
public relations campaign to convince the public and policymakers of
the urgency of the problem. In doing so, they've simplified conclusions
at times, or deliberately pointed to worst case scenarios when the
middle of the bell curve would do just fine. The science remains
cumulative and solid, but the selling of this science hasn'
t -- and that, if anything else, fuels the critics.
valid one's feeling of exclusion is, it isn't a substitute for what
science does: test and try to falsify. The theory of anthropogenic
climate change has not been disproven. It is stronger today than ever
Domestically, it is going to
be difficult for the administration to convince Congress to take
another vote on climate change legislation in 2010. In mounting a
campaign against the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in the House, the
business lobby was very successful in scaring the bejeezus out of
moderate Democrats. Today, they argue that cap-and-trade legislation
amounts to a "tax" and that India or China -- which won't have to curb
its emissions by the same magnitude -- will steal hundreds of thousands
of U.S. jobs.
Dealing in probabilities here,
is it preferable to accept a short-term anchor on economic growth in
order to improve the health of the commons? Is this a political
sustainable vote? It is not clear whether, in 2010, there are enough
Democrats who will say yes. That's one reason why Congress will
probably wait until the economy improves.
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is a contributing editor at The Atlantic
. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One
, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week