The Pursuit of Knowledge

Climate of Opinion

By From the March 2010 issue

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What are we to think about climate change, and what, if anything, are we to do about it? The question has been dominating politics since at least 1988, when the NASA climatologist James Hansen told Congress that we were at the eleventh hour, and that the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere must be stopped tomorrow if the day after tomorrow is to contain viable forms of human life. Some people believed him, some did not. But Hansen's views have been largely endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in that same year by the UN Environment Programme in conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization.

The website Climate Depot, managed by Marc Morano, and devoted to identifying, retailing, and amplifying the opposing arguments, has done its best to discredit the IPCC, recently publishing pirated internal documents which suggest that scientists at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, on which the Panel relies for its global temperature measurements, have been prepared to falsify evidence for political ends. Even before that episode, the favorable opinion of the IPCC's reports was not shared by all climatologists: certainly not by the 800 skeptics listed on Climate Depot. The IPCC secretariat selects both the scientists that it consults and the questions that it asks of them; peer-reviewed journals that dispute any of its findings are not, as a rule, incorporated in its four-yearly assessments, and its summaries, even of issues where there are equally persuasive opinions in contradiction with each other, invariably refer to "the weight of the evidence" -- a phrase that masks the fact that we are dealing with competing hypotheses and not just conflicting observations.

The final executive summary, which is all that the politicians have the time to read or the knowledge to grapple with, is produced by the secretariat, consulting only the lead authors of the assessment, under conditions of unanimous agreement. The assessment is then subject to two rounds of political review before being issued. To think that a summary report, issued in these circumstances, has the authority of a scientific document is surely to underestimate the enormous pressure from national interests, NGOs, and the warming climate of opinion that will be felt -- and manifestly is felt -- at every stage of the process.

Nevertheless, it is time to be serious and to face such facts as we can rely upon. It is agreed on all sides that global warming is happening. In all probability human activity -- such as the burning of fossil fuels -- makes a contribution to it, though the extent of that contribution is unclear. Global warming and global cooling are, in the long-term scheme of things, fairly routine occurrences. There is geological and fossil evidence of major and rapid fluctuations in temperature prior to the relatively stable Holocene period in which we are living. Greenhouse gas emissions are only one factor in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation on which the earth's temperature depends. Changes in solar output and cosmic wind and the angle and inclination of the earth with respect to the sun are also important, the first not well understood; important too are volcanic activity and atmospheric water vapor. Add the effects of carbon emissions by animals (termites, ruminants, humans) and of carbon sequestration by plants and other photosynthetic organisms such as plankton, take into account changes in the reflectivity of the earth's surface due to the way we use and clear the land and to the emission of heat-reflecting pollutants and sulfate aerosols, and it becomes clear that the production of greenhouse gases, even if they substantially accelerate climate change, are not uniquely its cause.

Moreover, it is also clear that some human activities have a cooling effect overall, and that the attempt to stabilize the climate could be pursued by adding to the things we do to it, rather than by subtracting what we do already. This point, which tends to be ignored in current debates, is all-important. For it suggests the possibility of taking unilateral action to counteract global warming, a possibility that all who are skeptical about international treaties or the ability of the big polluters to adhere to them must surely welcome.

To date the alarmist literature has had more influence on the political process than the literature of skeptics, and the noise directed at politicians from the NGOs has made it politically dangerous to adopt any policy that conflicts directly with their aims. Faced with an impending evil, human beings naturally seek to avert it, rather than to adapt to it. Adaptation may be the right strategy, but it is invariably the last one to be adopted, and usually only after all the mistakes have been made. Indeed, according to the theory of evolution it is precisely the mistakes that cause the adaptation -- too late, however, for those who make them.

When it comes to climate change the first of those mistakes is haste. The publicity release for Al Gore's propaganda film,  An Inconvenient Truth, began thus: "Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the vast majority of the world's scientists are right, we have just 10 years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tailspin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics, and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced." Similar alarms are put about by the pressure groups -- typified by this, sent round before the Copenhagen conference by the transnational left-environmental group called Avaaz:

With the biggest climate summit in history just weeks away, leaders are backing off their promises for a deal to stop catastrophic climate change. If they fail, it won't just mean less snow on ski slopes. Millions of families in Africa will see their farms turn to dust as the desert advances, many in Asia will die in worsening floods and storms, and whole island nations will be threatened by rising seas -- all within 10-15 years.

If the radicals are right about the time scale, then we must adopt immediate and radical measures. However, in the present state of our knowledge, we cannot be sure what measures lie within our power or what effects and side effects might issue from them. Hence the urge to haste leads to vast schemes the effect of which on the climate is far less knowable than their effect on the prosperity, and therefore the capacity to act, of those who adopt them. And this, it seems to me, is the greatest danger that we currently face. There is only one nation in the world that has the economic strength, the adaptability, the accountability to its citizens, and the political will to address the problem. And that nation -- the United States of America -- is in the process of committing itself to severe economic restraint, at the very moment when the greatest need is for the costly research and far-reaching policies that only the United States can afford and which, indeed, only the United States has the political will to pursue.

As I write, the U.S. Congress is considering the American Clean Energy and Security Act, presented by Congressmen Waxman (D-CA) and Markey (D-MA). This bill -- heavily influenced by input from climate activists and radical NGOs -- aims to reduce the total of American greenhouse gas emissions to 83 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050 -- in other words, to a total of 1 billion tons per year. It has been calculated that the last year in which the U.S. emitted only 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases was 1910, when the population was a quarter of the size, and the total GDP one-twenty-fifth the size, of the levels reached today. To achieve the target, therefore, people six times as wealthy as their forebears will have to generate (per capita) a quarter of the product that has hitherto been the principal by-product of wealth. And how is this to be done without turning all expectations upside down?

Unreal targets, pursued in ignorance of the means to achieve them and without any conception of how the attempt to do so will affect popular sentiment, competing goals, and the many other factors that wise government must consider, have dominated the remedies to climate change, both in the schemes of politicians and in the exhortations of the activists. And there is a very good reason for this unreality, which is that nothing in the scenario has been priced. Hence competing goals (reducing emissions, providing affordable energy, maintaining a competitive economy, and so on) cannot be offset in any calculable way -- there being no measure of the extent to which one good must be foregone in order to achieve some stated advance toward another.

But there is a more important reason for the lack of progress, and for the entirely foreseeable deadlock encountered at every international conference in which this matter is discussed, which is that the question -- what are we to do about global warming? -- contains one word that is undefined, and on the definition of which every conceivable answer turns. That word is "we." Which first-person plural is being referred to? Which "we" is motivated by the public spirit, the energy, and the readiness for sacrifice that collective action of the kind required might demand? The answer is not to be found at international summits or rallies organized by radical NGOs. The answer is to be found in the hearts of ordinary people -- for it is they who must bear the cost of action and whose energies will be called upon to achieve the results.

Ordinary people feel the pulse of the "we" when called upon by their nation. This is particularly true of Americans. Preeminently among people in the modern world Americans are prepared to make sacrifices for their country, and to endorse collective action in its name. And uniquely among the nation-states of the modern world the United States of America has the will and the wealth to embark on schemes that would benefit us all -- in particular on those schemes of geo-engineering that will meet the threat of global warming head on by throwing some of the sun's heat back where it came from.

If you look at the issues discussed at the Copenhagen summit, however, you will see that they are in direct opposition to the idea of American initiative. Calls for "climate justice" and for the compensation of developing countries are aimed directly at reducing American wealth, as are the attacks on existing forms of energy -- forms that might be needed by any nation prepared to take the necessary action. Furthermore, underlying the agitation of the NGOs -- of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, for example -- is a deep hostility to the familiar and accepted "we" of national loyalty. The environmental NGOs are international organizations suspicious of national feelings. They are seeking a new kind of transnational order, a top-down system of controls, imposed by treaties through which a social and political agenda can be imposed on people regardless of their local affections. The contest between national and international perspectives is therefore as fundamental to the dispute over climate change as any disagreements concerning the science.

And we might ask why greenhouse gases have been singled out as the major cause of climate change, and why such seemingly futile gestures as the Waxman-Markey Act are released with such fervor into the arena of politics. Given the many factors that contribute to global warming, why not single out something that could be more easily or reliably-controlled? For example, it has been suggested that we could counter the effect of greenhouse gases by augmenting atmospheric aerosols that reflect heat away from the planet, by seeding the oceans with iron-filings, so causing carbon-absorbing plankton to expand, or by spraying salt from the oceans into the sky, so providing condensation nuclei that will whiten the clouds over the oceans and reflect more radiation back toward the sun. Geo-engineering of this kind is often dismissed out of hand -- even with moral outrage. For it seems to be letting the greedy Americans too easily off the hook, allowing them not merely to go on producing greenhouse gases but also to add to their sins by producing something else as an antidote. For many people the curbing of America is the goal. And some of those people are Americans-Messrs. Waxman and Markey among them. But one thing is certain. It is only a confident and uncurbed America that will ever be in a position to act on the question: what are we to do?

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.