As the reports from Dutch and British watchdog panels came in last week, greens hailed what they see as a vindication of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit and the partial rehabilitation of the IPCC, but they are wrong. As usual, the greens (and many of their critics) are missing the point.
The Big Green Lie is falling apart. And it’s not about Climategate and Glaciergate. It’s not about the science. It’s not even about public confidence in the integrity of the green movement — although this confidence is unlikely to regain the levels of 2009. Humpty Dumpty has fallen from the walls, and all the establishment commissions and investigations in Europe cannot glue him together again.
The core green problem is about the credibility of its policy proposals and the viability of the political strategy the big green groups pushed to enact them. Climategate and Glaciergate did not cause the collapse of the green agenda in Copenhagen and they are not responsible for the global decline in green political fortunes since then. Both the greens and their opponents need to understand that the reason that the Great Global Green Dream is melting lies in the sad truth that whatever the scientific facts of the matter, the global green movement is so blind and inept when it comes to policy and process that it has deeply damaged the causes it cares most about.
Not since the incident at Chappaquiddick derailed the Ted Kennedy for President boomlet of 1969 has a political movement imploded so fast and so messily as the green crusade to stop global warming. Just last November, the world’s leaders were elbowing each other aside to get in front of the cameras at what was billed as the Copenhagen Summit to Save the Planet. These days, nothing in the world is deader than the drive for a UN climate treaty — and polls around the world show voters less worried about climate change than about a host of other issues.
Here in the US, Al Gore has unaccountably disappeared from the leadership of the climate change movement; John Kerry has taken over the leadership of America’s greens. Kerry is fighting to get some kind of energy bill through the Senate despite fierce political headwinds, but it is already clear that the only way to get a bill through the Senate is to bait it with so many favors for so many special interests that its environmental impact will be, at best, small while its pork factor will be huge. Even that may not suffice; the last time I checked the smart money, Intrade thought there was a one in four chance that a cap and trade bill will get through Congress by December of this year. With Congress expected to be significantly more conservative after the midterm election, chances of significant climate legislation during President Obama’s first term range from slim to none.
The global process is in an even deeper hole. The greens, it is increasingly clear, bet the ranch on the Copenhagen process. That horrible meltdown, perhaps the biggest and most chaotic public embarrassment in the history of multilateral summits, turned climate change from global poster boy to global pariah. The green activists who advised their bosses to go to that summit and make large public commitments about global warming are in the doghouse now. Success is sometimes the most cruel and definitive form of failure: the Copenhagen Summit was exactly that kind of success for the climate change movement. They got all the world leaders together, got every television camera on the planet to focus in — and let everybody see just how confused and utopian their plans really were.
As the greens struggle to figure out how a cause so righteous, so necessary has gone so far off course, the Kool-Aide drinkers among them have frenetically concocted and endlessly repeated a narrative that casts all blame on the vileness and the stupidity of their opponents. Those awful climate deniers and their nefarious Big Oil paymasters are the vicious super villains who stopped this glorious social movement dead in its tracks. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and other evil quacks manufactured the appearance of scandal — the East Anglia emails, the ‘glaciergate’ charge and so forth. Aided by a clueless media, and pushed by evil carbon emitters, these non-stories took on a macabre life of their own.
But now, natter the cluelessly chirpy greens, all that is over. Limbaugh’s Big Lie has been conclusively disproved! The independent panels have reviewed the evidence in a dispassionate and thorough way, and both climate science and climate scientists have been cleared.
So presumably we will all be going back to Copenhagen soon, this time ready to sign up for that treaty?
Well, no. For one thing, the ‘vindication’ is less sweeping and thorough than the green cheerleaders acknowledge. As climate skeptic Pat Michaels argues in the Wall Street Journal, some of the investigators had significant links to the targets of the investigation and many of the most important questions were not addressed. A suspicious and skeptical public will not be convinced without a significantly more transparent process; the story isn’t over yet. Not until commissions that include prominent climate skeptics and genuinely independent figures ask all the relevant questions will this story die down.
Worse, even the very partial and incomplete results now emerging are in some ways a damaging indictment of the impartiality and trustworthiness of some climate scientists and environmental leaders. The greens were found innocent of inventing the science, but guilty of systematically hyping their case. The serious media are distancing themselves from the green leadership at this point more than nuzzling back into their arms. The New York Times report on the Dutch and British reports investigating the East Anglia CRU and the IPCC was widely hailed by infatuated green outlets as evidence that the whole scandal was a fraud; the actual Times story is considerably more cautious (and the text is more cautious than the headline). Andrew Revkin, whose coverage on his Times Dot Earth blog has often been considerably sharper and more far-sighted than what appears in the Grey Lady’s printed pages and has made him no friends among the environmentalist hard core, is making some very solid points.
The influential Economist, which has long been one of the most respected establishment voices urging fast action on climate change, is now voicing important qualifications and doubts about the green case. Perhaps even more than the Times, the Economist takes a sober view of recent events, noting that there is a pattern of exaggeration and hype in the IPCC documents reflecting some serious management and culture problems — and suggesting that Rajendra Pachauri is not the man to set things right. More, the Economist is putting out some extraordinary journalism on the complexity of the climate change problem and the difficulties that result when one tries to leap from science to policy. What the Economist is reporting is that excitable greens have oversold a wide variety of worst case scenarios — and underestimated the complex nature of the relationship between climate change and world politics.
In sum, the mainstream press seems to be swinging around toward the views expressed on this blog: that the scandals may not discredit or even really affect the underlying scientific arguments about climate change but they do cast doubt on the perspicacity of the movement’s leadership — and that a fundamental rethink is called for.
Greens who feared and climate skeptics who hoped that the rash of investigations following Climategate and Glaciergate and all the other problems would reveal some gaping obvious flaws in the science of climate change were watching the wrong thing. The Big Green Lie (or Delusion, to be charitable) isn’t so much that climate change is happening and that it is very likely caused or at least exacerbated by human activity. The Big Lie is that the green movement is a source of coherent or responsible counsel about what to do.
The greens claim to be diagnosticians and therapists: that they can both name the disease and heal it. They are wrong. The attitudes and political vision of a group of NGO pressure groups may work when it comes to harassing Japanese whale ships in the Antarctic; this vision and these people come up short when set against the challenge of moderating the impact of human industrial activity on the earth’s climate system. Many leaders of today’s environmental movement are like the anti-alcohol activists before Prohibition who convinced Americans that the problem of alcohol abuse was real, destructive, and likely to get worse unless addressed. These farsighted activists were absolutely correct: with the introduction of the motorcar alcohol was more destructive than ever; with more than 500,000 alcohol related highway deaths between 1982 and 2008, more Americans have been killed on our roads as a result of drunk driving since 1915 than have died in our wars.
The problem is that the remedy proposed, Prohibition, not only failed to solve the problem — it made the problem of alcohol abuse worse, and it also reduced respect for the law and led to the rise of organized crime in the United States on an unprecedented scale.
The Prohibitionists were brilliantly, scientifically correct about the problem: they were foolishly and destructively blind about how to deal with it.
The green movement’s strategic failure is also reminiscent of the Peace Movement of the 1920s. Chuckleheaded do-gooders correctly recognized the problem of war. In the conditions of the twentieth century, great power wars like World War One were radically unacceptable. Unless war could be stopped, scores of millions might brutally die. Whole nations would be devastated; millions of children would starve. Given the rise of aircraft, great cultural monuments would be destroyed as the world’s greatest cities were razed to the ground. New and more terrible weapons would be developed under wartime conditions, weapons that potentially could lead to the destruction of all human civilization or even of life on earth.
Again, the Peace Movement of the 1920s was completely right about this — we know to our sorrow today just how right they were. Yet the strategies they proposed — a treaty to ‘outlaw war’ in the 1920s, and appeasement of dictators and revisionist powers in the 193os — were utter disasters and made World War Two inevitable. The Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s repeated the mistake: confusing the identification of a problem (nuclear weapons) with a workable policy solution (a unilateral western freeze on nuclear weapons deployment that would have given the Soviets superiority in Europe). There are fewer nuclear weapons today than would have existed had the Nuclear Freeze people had their way; there almost certainly would have been fewer wars and fewer war deaths if the policy recommendations of the pre-World War Two peace movements had been greeted with the obloquy and contempt they deserved.
You can diagnose a disease but have no clue how to treat it. You can be an excellent climate scientist and a wretched social engineer. You can want to do good and end up furthering exactly the evils you most deplore.
That is where most of the organized green groups stand today.
The real and lasting damage that the green movement sustained in the last eight months has been the revelation that it is strategically and politically incompetent. It adopted a foolish grand strategy (a global treaty by unanimous consent) and attempted to stampede the world to agreement by hyping the science and whooping the treaty through. That was never going to work; the green movement today is living with the bitter consequences of its strategic blindness.
The problem is real; therefore my solution is right: that is the faulty logic behind the Green Lie, and it is exactly the tired old lie of the Prohibitionists and the peace quacks. Alcohol abuse, war, nuclear weapons and excessive emission of greenhouse gasses are all bad. Those facts, however, do not make Prohibition, the Kellog-Briand Pact, the nuclear freeze or the Big Green treaty movement smart, effective or good.
History is brutal and unforgiving; good intentions are no excuse. The nobler the cause, the worse the betrayal. Precisely because a growing body of science points to the existence of some serious concerns about climate, we must think carefully and clearly. Malthusian panic attacks alternating with utopian dreams of universal accords, anti-growth politics and anti-capitalist resentments dressed up as environmentalism aren’t going to help us.
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Sir Toby Belch asked the Puritanical steward Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Human nature is not going to change because hair-shirted environmentalists think we should become more ascetic. The world economy must and will grow; world living standards can and must continue to rise. Grandiose global treaties to regulate economic activity and limit growth will never work any more than airy global treaties will get rid of war. Complex cap and trade systems are going to be distorted by lobbyists and gamed by lawyers — just as the biofuels program turned into just another special interest farm subsidy. Americans didn’t stop drinking because the bluenosed progressive reformers of the day thought it would help. They, and other people as well, aren’t going to give up their lifestyles just because there is a climate problem.
This doesn’t mean that nothing can or should be done. Nudging the US economy toward less energy intensive activity while cutting the costs of hiring people is a sensible way to promote the kind of high tech, complex service economy that will serve us best down the road with or without global warming; I personally think the substitution of a carbon tax for payroll taxes would be sound public policy even if global warming turned out to be a total fraud.
I note that the Indian government, as allergic as ever to the Copenhagen approach, is attempting to end that country’s wasteful and destructive policy of subsidizing energy use by keeping fuel costs artificially low. This is happening for economic, not environmental reasons: the Indian government simply cannot afford the cost of these subsidies, and it is prepared to face strikes and protests to see the reforms through. This single reform if carried through and sustained, is likely to do more for the environment than the complex, expensive, time consuming and largely ineffectual Kyoto Protocol. Ending fuel subsidies was not a green idea; it was a growth idea. It was not a global policy; it was an Indian policy. The ideas that get us out of this mess will be ideas that work for specific countries and that make the economy work better, produce more wealth and use energy and raw materials more efficiently.
Alcohol abuse was a real problem in 1918, but the Prohibitionist belief that there was One Big Legislative Answer only made things worse. Over the years, we’ve made progress on reducing the effect of alcohol abuse on our society in various ways. Organizations like AA have helped millions stop drinking while leaving those who can drink responsibly to do so in peace. Strict enforcement of drunk driving laws has dramatically reduced highway deaths due to drink. Many of the most important advances had nothing to do with direct assaults on the alcohol problem. Increased economic competition ended the days of the three martini lunch. Attacks on discrimination against women have given women and children more economic choices when Daddy spends all his money at the corner saloon; enforcement of laws against domestic violence has helped curb the vicious spouse and child abuse that was once part of John Barleycorn’s toll on our society. We are not all the way there yet, and as long as human nature is what it is we may never get there, but once we had the good sense to ignore Carry Nation and the crazy Prohibitionist cranks, we were able to make significant and sustained progress dealing with the problem.
Something like this is going to have to happen on the climate front. Relatively small steps, or larger steps often undertaken for reasons that have little directly to do with climate, will have to see us through. Until more greens understand that, and until the green movement as a whole disabuses itself of the dangerous fantasy that the way to solve our environmental problems is to embrace Malthusian fantasies, utopian treaties and grandiose laws, the green movement will continue to be a drag on human progress — even as the computer models get better and the temperature goes up.
At best, the green movement might be compared to an alarm clock: jangling shrilly to wake up the world. That is fair enough; they have turned our attention to a problem that needs to be carefully examined and dealt with. But the first thing you do when you wake up is to turn the alarm clock off; otherwise that shrill beeping noise will distract you from the problems of the day.
The alarm clock will never understand this; making shrill and irrational noise is what alarm clocks do and is all they understand. But sensible and thoughtful people who want humanity to live fuller, richer lives in a cleaner and more sustainable world need to get past the naive and crude policy ideas that currently dominate green thinking and start giving these questions the serious attention and careful thought they deserve.