The Economist‘s ‘Democracy in America’ blog has an excellent post titled “Climate Change: A Cooling Consensus” that’s well worth your time this weekend. It’s a very well-written essay encapsulating more or less what we’ve been saying all along here at Via Meadia. It also notes some important ways in which the debate has shifted. A taste:
As a rule, climate scientists were previously very confident that the planet would be warmer than it is by now, and no one knows for sure why it isn’t. This isn’t a crisis for climate science. This is just the way science goes. But it is a crisis for climate-policy advocates who based their arguments on the authority of scientific consensus.Mr [Nate] Cohn [of the New Republic] eventually gets around to admitting that “in the end, the so-called scientific consensus on global warming doesn’t look like much like consensus when scientists are struggling to explain the intricacies of the earth’s climate system, or uttering the word ‘uncertainty’ with striking regularity.” But his attempt to minimise the political relevance of this is unconvincing. He writes, “The recent wave of news and magazine articles about scientists struggling to explain the warming slowdown could prolong or deepen the public’s skepticism. But the ‘consensus’ never extended to the intricacies of the climate system, just the core belief that additional greenhouse gas emissions would warm the planet.”If this is true, then the public has been systematically deceived. As it has been presented to the public, the scientific consensus extended precisely to that which is now seems to be in question: the sensitivity of global temperature to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Indeed, if the consensus had been only that greenhouse gases have some warming effect, there would have been no obvious policy implications at all.
Definitely read the whole thing.As we noted earlier today, it will be interesting to see how (and if) President Obama’s planned climate speech takes account of these changes in tone and substance of climate discussion.We’re hoping he uses this opportunity to move to some common sense ideas: accelerate the switch from coal to natural gas by developing sensible fracking regulations that allow us to move ahead as quickly as we prudently can; switch alternative energy funding from costly and ineffective subsidies to research that can develop technologies that actually work well enough to succeed in markets on their own; promote telework and generally promote the emergence of a low-footprint information society that increasingly shifts from the movement of stuff to the transmission of ideas; continue research into energy efficiency.We don’t think all government intervention on environmental issues is bad. Requirements for more efficient cars, for example, have helped to reduce all kinds of air pollution in American cities and kept consumer gas bills lower than they would have been. Though there are some misfires (like the lightbulb fiasco), pushing manufacturers toward more energy-efficient appliances and housing contractors toward more energy-efficient homes can be reasonable policies if done sensibly and in moderation. We’ve long thought a revenue-neutral carbon tax that reduced payroll taxes would both make for a fairer tax system and promote the economy’s shift toward information rather than energy intensive production. But such measures should be carefully shaped and have modest goals. Green policy has a history of unexpected byproducts and unforeseen costs.There are so many dogmatic green crusaders in the administration that the President’s list is likely to contain some pretty poor ideas. Some of these he can impose through executive orders; others require Congressional approval. When the list is out we’ll give our analysis, but for now we hope that the recent return to sanity in the media discussion of climate change has helped the more realistic people in the administration to keep the wilder greens in check.[President Obama photo courtesy Getty Images.]