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Hugh Asks, I Answer: How to Talk About Climate Change on the Campaign Trail

This is a long post; better get yourself a cup of coffee. Brother Hugh Hewitt takes note of one of Mitt Romney’s potential tergiversations about climate change last Friday and made a shout out to me for guidance on how GOP candidates should think and talk about the issue on the stump (and suggesting I post the answer here). Hugh got a lot of e-mails attacking Mitt as a RINO for saying that the earth has warmed and that we should be looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I’m with Hugh in thinking people are mistaken about the first part of that criticism, but think Romney blew it in embracing climate orthodoxy of near-term fossil fuel suppression.
Climate change is a complex matter, not easily tackled in the short sound-byte format of modern campaigns and inch-deep political reporters. It is possible both to acknowledge the potential seriousness of the issue while going on the attack at the same time against the badly flawed conventional wisdom. Herewith a primer on the short answers candidates should give, along with supplemental commentary and additional facts. Even these answers are probably too long for the campaign trail, but is necessary for candidates to at least master this much of the outline of the issue, and have the confidence to speak with authority on it.
Question: Do you believe that climate change is taking place?
Answer: “Yes, the earth has clearly warmed since the end of the “Little Ice Age” roughly 200 years ago, by a little less than 1 degree Celsius. I accept the opinion of the large number of scientists who conclude that human activity has helped cause the warming we’ve experienced so far. The question for scientists is how much further warming might occur, and for policy makers the question is what should be done about it. Both scientists and the environmental community have done a poor job on both questions.”
Comment: This last sentence could be put even stronger, such as “The climate science community and environmental advocates have approached this issue disastrously, wasting 20 years and leading the entire world to a dead end on climate policy.” And add as a twist of the knife: “The environment is much too important to be left to environmentalists. They’ll just make an even bigger mess of everything, like they have on climate change.”
Analysis: To be sure, there are problems with the temperature record on which the finding of 0.8 degrees Celsius warming since the early 1800s is based, and as the “Climategate” scandal revealed, many scientists have abused the data or acted in bad faith, undermining their credibility. But too many of the visible signs of a warmer world, such as retreating arctic glaciers, shrinking arctic sea ice mass, and permafrost melting earlier in the spring, are apparent to deny that warming has taken place. This view has been affirmed by no less a certified non-RINO than Sarah Palin.
Can these changes be attributed to natural climatic changes, such as long-wave ocean current and temperature oscillations, solar activity, and the end of a long-wave climate cycle that gave us the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age? Yes, but the research on these potential explanations is incomplete, often purposely so (that is, the mainstream climate science community suppresses or ignores inquiries into these factors), to be sure. Moreover, the warming effect of changes in greenhouse gas concentrations can be demonstrated in a laboratory, though that is just the beginning of the matter. The effect of current and projected levels of greenhouse gases alone is quite modest–a doubling of carbon dioxide would give you about a 1.1 degree rise in temperature. That’s about it. Not much to write home about. Most of the so-called climate “skeptics,” such as Richard Lindzen and Pat Michaels, agree with this much of the so-called “consensus.” All of the action in the catastrophic climate scenarios–the oft-heard projections of a 3 to 5 degree Celsius temperature increase over the next century–is in the “feedback” effects of warming oceans that greatly magnify warming, changing atmospheric moisture levels, melting ice caps, altered cloud and jet stream behavior, changes in land cover (deforestation), etc. All of these projections may have a plausible basis in theory, but for now must be produced by complicated computer models that assume many of the conditions they set out to prove. The empirical basis for the suite of “feedback” effects is woefully inadequate, and many real world observations so far do not match up with many of the climate models.
Question: So, you do agree that humans have caused climate change? [Most journalists will ask this thinking it's a "gotcha" question. Go on offense.]
Answer: “I just said that. The question is how much more warming might be expected. The late scientist Carl Sagan once said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this is even more true when politicians and advocacy groups are demanding a huge increase in government control of energy resources. The climate science community has badly bungled the entire effort to explore climate change, allowing the UN process to become wholly politicized and slave to a single misguided policy agenda. So far the “evidence” we’re given is computer models trying to predict the entire planet’s condition 100 years from now. The track record of this kind of computer forecasting is very very poor. In my own line of work [if this is Romney talking] I can recall back in the 1970s how a large number of expert economists, academic institutions, and private sector banks produced very complicated computer models of the economy that were utterly unable to predict interest rates or anything else just six months ahead. No one does this kind of economic forecasting any more, though I am sure if there were large government grants available people would still be fine tuning computer models that don’t work. Just look at the Obama Administration’s projections for how the Stimulus program would keep unemployment under 8 percent.”
Comment and analysis: The theme that there is an iron-clad scientific “consensus” behind the idea of catastrophic global warming is the most pernicious aspect of this issue, and continues to do great damage to the scientific community. Numerous recent opinion surveys bear this out: the public is tuning out the whole subject, and increasingly skeptical of environmental alarms. Two of the more shrewd environmentalists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, have coined a great phrase: “apocalypse fatique.”
While most scientists may agree with the basic theory of climate change, that number drops considerably when the issue comes to whether climate change will be extreme or catastrophic. More importantly, there are contrarian or confounding findings published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature almost every week (despite attempts to suppress these findings by journal editors and highly politicized scientists) that challenge the main points of the alarmist narrative, but the media only reports the alarmist studies and seldom reports on the contrarian studies.
Question: If you agree that human activity have played a role in the recent warming of the planet, why don’t you support cap and trade/emissions reductions/the UN agenda/putting a price on carbon/(pick your own form of this question)?
Answer: “The climate campaign’s monomania for near-term suppression of greenhouse gas emissions through cap and trade or carbon taxes or similar means is the single largest environmental policy mistake of the last generation. The way to reduce carbon emissions is not to make carbon-based energy more expensive, but rather make low- and non-carbon energy cheaper at a large scale, so the whole world can adopt it, not just rich nations. This is a massive innovation problem, but you can’t promote energy innovation by economically ruinous taxes and regulation. We didn’t get the railroad by making horse-drawn wagons more expensive; we didn’t get the automobile by taxing the railroads; we didn’t get the desktop computer revolution by taxing typewriters, slide-rules, and file cabinets. It is time to stop ending the charade that we can enact shell game policies like cap and trade that will do nothing to actually solve the problem, but only increase the price of energy and slow down our already strangled economy. I support sensible efforts for government to promote energy technology breakthroughs, but am against subsidizing uncompetitive technologies.”
Comment: If you really want to go on offense, you could use my opening statement from testimony two weeks ago to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s oversight subcommmittee:

“The international diplomacy of climate change is the most implausible and unpromising initiative since the disarmament talks of the 1930s, and for many of the same reasons; the Kyoto Protocol and its progeny are the climate diplomacy equivalent of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 that promised to end war (a treaty that is still on the books, by the way), and finally, future historians are going to look back on this whole period as the climate policy equivalent of wage and price controls to fight inflation in the 1970s.”

Analysis: Forget about the argument over the science of global warming for a moment, because the Achilles’ heel of the whole issue is the idiotic policy prescription of the climate campaign. As a thought experiment, consider this basic fact: if we could wave the proverbial magic wand and prove with absolute certainty that the earth was in store for 4 degrees of warming from greenhouse gases, it would not make the climate campaign’s idiotic agenda any less idiotic. In other words, put bluntly, the scientific argument, interesting as it is, no longer matters very much for the politics and policy of the matter.
Keep two basic facts of climate arithmetic in mind. First, the emissions targets for the year 2050 that climate policy orthodoxy requires–an 80 percent reduction by the year 2050–would require reducing fossil fuel use to a level last seen in the U.S. in the year 1910, and on a per capita basis (since the U.S. only had 92 million people in 1910, but will have over 400 million in 2050), would require taking us back to a level of fossil fuel use last seen in 1875. This. Is. Loony. Toons. It will not happen. Climate campaigners, who usually contest every tiny deviation from orthodoxy, simply change the subject or spout mindless clichés when presented with the arithmetic on this. (Or, more often, display their total innumeracy about the matter.) I have been presenting the arithmetic on this inconvenient truth for nearly four years now, and have not once had my math challenged on the subject. By anyone. Usually the climate campaigners will challenge every small point to the bitter end. But not this one.
Second, even if the U.S. did somehow achieve this target (by shutting down the whole country perhaps?), it would make no difference to future global warming projections, unless every other nation (especially China and India) achieved the same low level of emissions. This is also not going to happen. Let me put this more starkly: The United States could cease to exist, and it will make no difference in the projected warming 100 years from now for the simple reason that China’s emissions growth alone in the next 25 years is going to be greater than U.S. emissions are today. In other words, if the U.S. disappeared, our emissions will be “replaced” by China’s.
So the simple question is, why should we hobble our economy to the benefit of our competitors? When the Senate faced this question in 1997, it voted 97 – 0 against such a stupid climate policy. They would vote much the same way today if the question is put to them in the same way. GOP candidates should put the question exactly that way now, because the basic factors have not changed one bit.
Finally, while most environmental advocates are walking examples of Churchill’s definition of a fanatic as someone who can’t change their mind and won’t change the subject, but here and there are a few environmentalists who are starting to face up to the ruinous and fruitless path they’ve been on. Dave Roberts of Grist.com, one of the original “climate hawks” as he calls himself, is a good example; see his recent article in The American Prospect, in which he admits that “After 20 years, it may be time to admit that the climate movement’s fundamental strategy, not a deficit of personal courage or heroic striving, is behind the lack of progress.”
So here, I think, you can see Romney’s fundamental mistake last week: why offer aid and comfort to a dying agenda?
For further reading: On the subject of energy innovation as an alternative to carbon energy suppression, see the Post-Partisan Power report I collaborated on with the Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute. Not perfect or without problems, but a good starting point for approaching this issue in a more sensible way. Second, if you haven’t already done so, I’ll repeat my recommendation made here before to see Roger Pielke Jr’s book The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. It is the most thorough treatment of the daunting arithmetic of the failing climate orthodoxy. Third, this post is already too long, but the alternative strategies in the event of warming are adaptation and resiliency. (As Japan’s recent experience proves, there are other large threats to our well being; ask youself, who was better able to deal with this kind of disaster–Haiti, or Japan? Now you have some idea of what to do.) And maybe geoengineering, though I have my doubts about this. Romney and other candidates should get up to speed on all of this. In the meantime, may I recommend that Romney’s team acquaint themselves with my Almanac of Environmental Trends, especially the climate change section starting on page 103, and the accompanying website environmentaltrends.org?
Now, a note to commenters: Everyone likes to split hairs on every fine point of this massive subject, highlight their favorite contrarian theory or study, attack the bad faith of environmentalists or corrupt scientists, or–if you incline to climate alarmism–stamp your feet and complain about the moral blindness of heretics like me. My own view, just to be clear, is that global warming is a real phenomenon, but almost certainly exaggerated like most prior environmental scares; I think Lindzen and Michaels will eventually be proven correct that we’ve seen most of the warming we’re likely to see from greenhouse gas emissions. But even if it not exaggerated, it is no excuse for enabling the authoritarian agenda of the environmental movement. The salient question Hugh Hewitt poses is how the political fight on this issue is best fought and won. Refighting all the tired battles over the fine points of climate science is not especially helpful to this purpose.

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