Question climate change policy, not the science

by Jay Stevens

There’s a lot of resistance in some circles to the idea that global warming is real, despite the overwhelming evidence. The question is, why?

Believe it or not, I think an answer can be found in Krayton Kerns’ paranoid theory that a cabal of “environmental disaster wizards” whose goal is…well…it’s not exactly clear. To return cattle ranch land to its “pristine” state? To subvert everyone under a socialist state?

My sense is that Kerns, and people like Kerns, are wary of the chorus of voices urging change, most of it lifestyle change. They want to dictate what kind of car you buy, goes the theory, they want to tell you what light bulbs to use in your home. It’s intrusive government policy that’s concerning here, not the raw data on climate change.

(By the way, Kerns’ conspiracy is patently ridiculous. As a card-carrying member of the Democratic party, and with many personal connections to environmentalists of all stripes, I can say with utmost confidence that there is no conspiracy. If you don’t believe me – and why would a conspiracy buff believe me? — consider the conspiracy itself. The means by which the conspiracy is implemented – banking on some wily carbon-trading scheme – is too complex. And the conspiracy’s goals are vague and unrewarding. Why would so many people – so many connected people – want to turn ranch land into wilderness? What’s the payoff?)

You can see the conspiracist’s concern in the debate over Al Gore’s energy usage, an argument that genuinely befuddles and aggravates those that believe climate change is here and is a problem. To us, it looks like the ol’ bait-and-switch con game. Distract us with the – irrelevant – details of an individual’s lifestyle, while continuing to deny and address a problem that threatens our economy, geography, and, eventually, our very existence as a species. And to what end? To continue supporting big oil companies? To avoid the hard facts of scientific data?

(Criticizing Gore’s energy usage is ridiculous, of course. The key data missing from the allegations is how much energy he would be using if he didn’t conserve. I’d expect a filmmaker, PR man, celebrity, former vice president, and possible presidential candidate to use more energy than your average schmoe. How many functions does he host? How many laptops are going at one time in his house? How many guests stay over? Gore’s energy use is not an indictment of the man’s principles, but an indictment of the energy choices available to us.)

Yet, from a global-warming denier’s perspective, Gore’s alleged “hypocrisy” supports her suspicion that she’s being played. Here’s the most famous climate-change alarmist, and his energy bills are twelve times the average household’s! In other words, he’s jetting around the country “dictating” to us what products we can and can’t buy, where our energy comes from, and basically how we live our lives – and he’s not even following his own dictates! (All false claims, by the way. I don’t recall Gore ever “dictating” to us how to live our lives.) It must be a con!

Let’s face it, we’ll never convince a climate change denier to believe in global warming. The more evidence we provide, the more scientists and scientific organizations agree on the problem, the more governments decide to take action, the more the denier believes there’s a conspiracy afoot.

But here’s what I would say: don’t confuse the science with the policy.

Scientifically, global warming is a real problem, and it’s clear that human activity contributes to it. There’s a dispute on how serious the problem will be, and there’s room to maneuver on just how much human activity contributes. But there’s no denying that climate change is happening, and that it’s already having an adverse effect on our lives and pocketbooks.

Putting aside climate change, there’s also no denying that our fossil-fuel-based economy is causing a lot of negative impacts. Whether you think climate change is happening, you probably are concerned that the average American is putting 16 tons of carbon into the atmosphere – each year. And our reliance on oil creates political problems in places like Iraq and Iran; until we wean ourselves off of oil, we’ll be entangled in Middle East politics. (We’re also headed for a confrontation with Russia and China in the oil-rich Central Asian republics, but that’s another topic.)

Fighting climate change also reduces pollution and could potentially head off further global conflict over oil. Fighting climate change would also strengthen the domestic economy.

Even if the danger of climate change is wildly exaggerated, the policies to combat it are positive.

But here’s the thing: it’s policy-making time. While deniers are pretending the problem doesn’t exist, those that do believe are making policy. Personally, I’m concerned over the general trend of alternative energy plans that seem to involve millions and billions in taxpayer money, yet would only perpetuate the domination of energy by big corporations.

Wind farms, for example, are wildly expensive, put money into big business pockets, and aren’t that efficient, anyway. Compare wind farms to insulation. Take this post from MaxSpeak, rejecting the common ideology that we should switch energy sources, but instead should work more to make our current sources more efficient:

Take the case of attic insulation again. In my home state of Washington, the optimum amount of attic insulation is ~R50. With R20 insulation or less upgrading to this will pay itself back in four years or fewer. (In new homes of course the payback is even faster.) However regulations only require R38. Almost every new home built is at the R38 level. Even when existing homes upgrade from R20 or below, they typically choose R38. (That is because insulation contractors know that competitors will quote R38, and don?t want to be the high bidder.) A price rise sufficient to motivate homeowners to demand R50 in new homes, and to let contractors risk bidding higher insulation levels would cost consumers much more than including an R50 insulation requirement in a comprehensive set of efficiency regulation.

Because the energy saved with increased efficiency pays for the cost of the upgrade in insulation, it’s not only cost-effective for the home owner, but saves on energy consumption, too. Image a state program that extends loans to homeowners who wish to better their insulation. The homeowner easily pays off her loans with the energy savings from the insulation; the state program pays for itself off the interest from the loans, perhaps using the money to upgrade household insulation for the elderly, say, or the poor. Or you could use tax incentives, giving homeowners a tax break if they upgrade their insulation.

Of course, such a program would never fly without a lot of lobbying. Why? Quite simply, it takes money out of the utilities’ pockets and puts it right into our pockets.

So, yes, be wary about the policies associated with global warming. Fight like hell to make sure energy-reduction happens the right way. But deny climate change? The facts are there, folks. The problem is clear.

  1. Black Box

    As a historian of science, I am always entertained by any declaration of finality in science. Usually, these declarations, that a particular scientific problem has been “solved” or that an entire field of scientific enquiry is “closed,” come after many decades, if not centuries, of hard work. That is, after many years, when all outstanding questions have been “answered,” and there appears to be no more fruitful areas of inquiry remaining, someone or some group will declare the science is “settled” and there is really nothing more to know.

    Such was the situation in physics around 1890. Both professionals and laymen alike began declaring that all the great mysteries of physics had been adequately explained. Indeed, university professors often told prospective physics students that they ought to consider another field. Physics had no future.

    Then, within ten years, inexplicable things began to happen. There appeared to be something really strange going on beneath the surface of Newton’s macro-scale universe. Mysterious rays and invisible agents were soon theorized, and before anyone knew it, an unknown universe of space-time and elementary particles opened wide. By 1900 or 1910, anybody with any brains wanted to be a physicist.

    Today we have a good number of climatologists and their supporters in the environmental community declaring that there are really no more questions about how the climate works. This is all the more entertaining because climatology is such a young science. It has gone from infancy and being barely able to crawl to full maturity in only a few years, or so it wants us to believe. Not only is it satisfied that everything important about the climate is understood, but it now claims that it has achieved such a level of scientific mastery that it actually knows how to control the climate.

  2. As a historian of science, you’re also no doubt aware of the long-standing conflict of science and government and religious leaders who balk when scientific studies threaten to undermine ideology.

    From the imprisonment of Galileo for daring to suggest the Earth revolves around the sun, to the Stalinist purges of Soviet biologists, those in power have tried to make science conform to their particular vision of the universe. As a historian of science, you’re also no doubt aware of the recent proliferation of junk science played in service to particular industry or religious causes. (“Intelligent Design,” say.) That the very objectivity and methods of science have been questioned in order to undermine their percieved threat to ideology (both on the left and right).

    As far as your claims that environmentalists and climatologists say there’s nothing left to study…well, it’s an indictment of your studies that you make such a claim. As I said in my post, there’s plenty of in-fighting over the expected results of climate change and the amount human activity contributes. Even anti-global-warming zealots’ poster-boy, Richard Lindzen at MIT, admits that climate change exists and human activity contributes to it. He’s just not at all worried that it’s going to be very severe.

    But consensus exists, and we’ve already seen the problems here in Montana: early snow melt, hot summers, rampant and severe wildfires.

    In the end, of course, we should approach climate change with the old saw, “expect the best, but prepare for the worst.” That our government and energy industries are blithely pretending that there’s no danger, we could possibly be throwing away precious time.

    And, of course, as this post was meant to address, the solutions to global warming would also have positive economic, foreign policy, and environmental benefits.

    As a historian of science, after all, you must also be familiar with how rare such consensus as we see now with climate change is. It’s not often a science in its “infancy,” as you say, results in near-harmonious conclusions from recording the evidence at hand. Some might say this is the result of a conspiracy, but, again, as a historian of science you no doubt can agree the impossibility of such a conspiracy in today’s scientific community….

  3. Black Box

    As a historian of science, I must say you do not know very much about the history of science, e.g., the case of Galileo or the botched joke of Soviet “genetics.” But, to be charitable, I will assume that, since this is a blog, you wish to reduce everything to simplistic statements whenever possible.

    The rest of what you have written in support of the Warmers is essentially a rehash of the current populist dogma. I take no position on that. It is of no concern to me if forest fires are caused by drought, beetles, lightening, or matches. I do not care who is ultimately proven right or wrong. My only object was to point out that the history of science is such that one must be very skeptical of any scientist or group of scientists who claim certainty. An entire civilization, even if it is predisposed to panic, must be extremely careful before it decides to act on such claims of certainty.

    I think, perhaps, you ought to step back from this noisy and somewhat silly debate on climate change and take a larger view. Since you seem to have a distain for the formal study of the history of science, I recommend you take a literary perspective. Imagine a small group of “scientists” declaring the Flying Island of Laputa is doomed because its climate is heating up, but that if the King of Laputa follows their suggestions, they can save the island.

    [In this space, you must now play Swift and fill in the hilarious contretemps that follow. A few suggestions to get you started: 1. Move the island farther away from the sun; 2. Move the sun farther away from the island; 3. Require all citizens of Laputa to make five tons of ice each year; etc., etc.]

  4. LOL!

    Hilarious. Thanks for the “reasoned” reply. If you treat your subjects and students with as much scorn as you heaped on me without bothering to address any of my points, you must indeed be quite the “historian.”

  5. BTW, I’m eager to know where anybody has declared “finality” on the subject of climate change either here in any peer-reviewed scientific journal…? All I’m asking is that the science be considered, not the industry- and government-driven ideology that masks itself as science…

    Do you know the difference? Do you care? Seems to me in the history of science, these things might crop up now and then, and that the barrage of junk science might actually interest someone who has a regard for scientific inquiry…

  6. Kilgore

    Touchstone, you were right when you said there benefits for renewables outside of the climate change bubble. What Black Box is talking about is paradigm shift and I have studied that as well. Obviously we will never be 100% sure because this is science but it is STUPID to ignore what we know because you don’t like the way it sounds. If we used solar power primarily, I suppose we’d be fighting over all the sunny places in the world, but it would be better than standing up to our necks in a civil war to keep our entire economy from collapsing. I don’t think it makes much sense to rely so heavily on a fuel source we don’t have in large quantities here at home. And please don’t say ANWR and the Rocky Mountain Front because we all know that there isn’t that much there, at least not at the rate we’re burning it.

  7. Of course what Black Box says is correct, but that’s science. It’s the same argument that’s used against evolution by Creationists who claim that the science community’s lack of absolute consensus is proof that they’re wrong. It just seems to be yet another strategy in avoiding some of the conclutions that those infants, those climatologists, have made.

    Thanks, Kilgore, for ably clarifying what I’d like to say.

  8. Just found an essay that sums up my feelings about climate change: “From scenario to action.”

    So, predicting future climate in any precise way is naturally impossible to do. Nevertheless, it is precisely what we have to do, if we decide to act on the basis of the “scenarios” served up by climate researchers. Somewhere we have quite simply to decide what we believe will happen and what we want to happen. The very point as regards climate models is to indicate different alternative futures by starting from different possibilities for how the global society might develop economically, technologically and demographically , leading to different levels of emissions. But this perhaps gives us a false feeling of freedom of choice. No predictions, but a smorgasbord of scenarios—it is just a matter of choosing. By painting a picture of different possibilities, the claim one lays to possessing real knowledge about the future is perhaps even greater than if one were to be content with forecasting a probable development, which we then would have to decide how to handle. And it seems as if it is precisely forecasts that the decision-makers are now actually asking for.

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