The lukewarm case for climate action

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I usually try to avoid writing about the science of climate change. For one thing, it’s boring. Start writing about climate science, and the next thing you know, you’re arguing about the technical details of forcings or ice-core samples.

This is not a recipe for riveting prose. There’s also the fact that arguing about climate science doesn’t convinces anyone.

But even more importantly, I think that arguments about “the science” matter a lot less for the climate debate than is often assumed. If you think climate change is a big deal, the best ways to deal with it are the same as if you don’t think it’s a big deal:

  1. Do a tax swap that puts a fee on emissions and uses the revenue to cut more economically harmful taxes;
  2. Repeal government subsidies that encourage development in flood-prone areas; and
  3. Allow the development of new low-emissions technologies.

I decided to make a temporary exception to my “no science” policy due to a recent exchange on Twitter between MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Ross Douthat of The New York Times. In response to Hayes’ claims that lots of conservatives implausibly dismissed climate change as a hoax, Douthat conceded that, yes, lots of conservatives did believe this, but it didn’t matter, because more sophisticated arguments would get you to the same place:

Douthat (along with Father William Dailey of Notre Dame) also asked for an evaluation of the arguments in the post he linked to (actually it’s a series of 11 posts). So I went and read them. The posts are written by Warren Meyer, who runs a parks-management business, and set forth a so-called “lukewarmer” position on climate change.

The position is “lukewarm” in that it tends to minimize different aspects of climate change rather than denying them outright: the earth is getting warmer (but not as much as we’re told); humans are responsible (but it’s mostly natural); warming will continue (but only a little bit) and might even be good for humanity (it certainly isn’t causing problems now).

Most of the arguments made in the posts are ones you can find being made by actual practicing climate scientists, though they are generally in the minority. To the extent there is an intellectual stolen base in the series, it’s in claims about how much of climate science represents the consensus view.

Meyer claims it is “pretty well accepted” that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, on its own, will raise the Earth’s temperature by about 1 degree Celsius. That’s correct. He also notes that most of the predicted warming from an increase in CO2 is not directly due to the CO2, but to various “positive feedbacks.” Higher temperatures from CO2 allow the atmosphere to retain more water vapor; water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, so more of it in the atmosphere will lead to still higher temperatures, and so on. That’s all right too.

The problem comes when Meyer suggests that climatologists aren’t certain about the existence of significant positive feedbacks. For example, in 2014, Texas A&M University (not exactly a hotbed of leftism) put out a statement on climate change signed by every member of its atmospheric science department. That statement reads as follows:

We all agree with the following three conclusions based on current evidence:

  • The Earth’s climate is warming, meaning that the temperatures of the lower atmosphere and ocean have been increasing over many decades. Average global surface air temperatures warmed by about 1.5° between 1880 and 2012.
  • It is extremely likely that humans are responsible for more than half of the global warming between 1951 and 2012.
  • Under so-called “business-as-usual” emissions scenarios, additional global-average warming (relative to a 1986-2005 baseline) would likely be 2.5-7°F by the end of this century.

Continued rising temperatures risk serious challenges for human society and ecosystems. It is difficult to quantify such risks, except to say that the potential magnitude of impacts rises rapidly as temperatures approach the high end of the range quoted above.

Note: In his posts, Meyer follows the convention used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of giving temperature estimates in Celsius. The A&M statement, by contrast, rightly gives these figures in Fahrenheit. Because this is America, damn it.

Other surveys of climate scientists have found overwhelming agreement for similar statements. A lot of ink has been spilled over whether it’s 97 percent of climate scientists who think recent warming is mostly due to man or whether its only 91 percent, but you’re fooling yourself if you think that there’s not a large majority of climate scientists who think climate change is real, largely man-made and risky.

I was prepared to go through Meyer’s series one by one and offer various responses to the arguments (If you go to a website like Skeptical Science, you can find responses to most of the points made). But when I got to the last article, the one that dealt with policy, I found this:

I am exhausted with all the stupid, costly, crony legislation that passes in the name of climate change action.   I am convinced there is a better approach that will have more impact on man-made CO2 and simultaneously will benefit the economy vs. our current starting point.  So here goes:

The Plan

Point 1:  Impose a Federal carbon tax on fuel.

Point 2:  Offset 100% of carbon tax proceeds against the payroll tax

Point 3:  Eliminate all the stupid stuff [E.G. the Ethanol Mandate]

Point 4:  Revamp our nuclear regulatory regime

Point 5: Help clean up Chinese, and Asian, coal production  

These are pretty much the same proposals I mentioned in the second paragraph (and that R Street long has advocated). That’s not so surprising. The revenue-neutral carbon tax is the policy of choice for smart conservatives and libertarians. It is, however, mostly not the choice of people who consider climate change a hoax.

Nor, sadly, is it yet the choice of most Republicans or Democrats. But it should be the choice of “Reform Conservatives” like Ross who want to apply conservative and pro-market principles to today’s problems.

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