Climate Change Can’t Be Left to the Scientists

Steve Bullock just wasn’t right.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Amid the fireworks of Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate, there was a moderately interesting exchange about the inherently political task of dealing with climate change. It happened among the not-so-killer B’s: the moderates Steve Bullock, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg.

Bullock, the governor of Montana, began by addressing Senator Bernie Sanders, asking, “Are we going to actually address climate change? … Or are we going to give people a better shot at a better life?” Bullock then added: “You can do both.” (This insight did not come as a surprise to Sanders, no matter what you think of his politics. The Vermont senator has endorsed the Green New Deal, which deliberately ties climate policy to several allegedly life-bettering policies, including universal health care and a job guarantee.)

Then Bullock attempted to depoliticize climate change: to make it a purely technical issue best left to professionals. “Let’s actually have the scientists drive this,” he said. “Let’s not just talk about plans that are written for press releases that will go nowhere else if we can’t even get a Republican to acknowledge that the climate is changing.”

Bullock is likely correct on the second point: Republicans in Washington, at least, aren’t likely to do anything on climate change soon. But he is wrong to suggest that scientists will solve it. Scientists can only study climate change; they can’t solve it. Engineers, technologists, and energy-system designers will solve it, if anyone can.

Perhaps that’s too nitpicky a point, and Bullock isn’t alone among progressives in leaning too hard on the prized status of science. But climate change will be fought in part by building stuff: new train lines, a new power grid, wind turbines, and solar farms. And as any local zoning-board official will tell you, the construction of something new is always unavoidably, inherently political.

The moderators then called on O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, who replied to this point in a somewhat garbled way.

“I listen to scientists on this, and they are very clear. We don’t have more than 10 years to get this right,” he said, before pivoting: “And we won’t meet that challenge with half steps or half measures or only half the country. We’ve got to bring everyone in.” Then he listed a number of archetypes of Americans—Texans and residents of Flint, Michigan, and college students in New Mexico—who needed to be brought into the climate solution.

Maybe this wasn’t his point—and it wasn’t much of a point in the first place—but Beto seemed to suggest that the scientists can tell us only the scale of the climate problem. They can’t actually marshal resources to address it.

Then Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, echoed Bullock’s point that virtually any Democrat will do more for the climate than the current president. “We have all put out highly similar visions on climate,” Buttigieg said. (I would dispute this, for what it’s worth: Senator Michael Bennet has a more detailed plan than Buttigieg does right now.) “It is all theoretical. We will deal with climate if and only if we win the presidency, if and only if we beat Donald Trump.”

Then Buttigieg, who so often cites his young age (and exposure to climate risk) as a major reason for his candidacy, started talking about Trump’s alleged bone spurs. For all the lip service that some politicians pay to climate change, lots of them just don’t know that much about it.