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Settled Science
The Most Futile March Ever

In anticipation of the UN climate summit taking place in Manhattan this week, New York’s streets filled with what pro-movement sources claimed to be 300,000 “activists” from all across the country. A coordinated thunderous din went up at 1 p.m. sharp and lasted for more than a minute, as protesters shouted, banged drums and blew horns in an attempt to communicate their displeasure at the lack of progress towards a comprehensive global climate treaty. The New York Times has a taste of the rhetoric being bandied about on the ground today:

“I’m here because I really feel that every major social movement in this country has come when people get together,” said Carol Sutton of Norwalk, Conn., the president of a teachers’ union. “It begins in the streets.” […]

“The climate is changing,” said Otis Daniels, 58, of the Bronx. “Everyone knows it; everyone feels it. But no one is doing anything about it.” […]

“Climate change is no longer an environmental issue; it’s an everybody issue,” Sam Barratt, a campaign director for the online advocacy group Avaaz, which helped plan the march, said on Friday.

“The number of natural disasters has increased and the science is so much more clear,” he added. “This march has many messages, but the one that we’re seeing and hearing is the call for a renewable revolution.”

It was the usual post-communist leftie march. That is, it was a petit-bourgeois re-enactment of meaningless ritual that passes for serious politics among those too inexperienced, too emotionally excited or too poorly read and too unpracticed at self-reflection or political analysis to know or perhaps care how futile and tired the conventional march has become. Crazed grouplets of anti-capitalist movements trying to fan the embers of Marxism back to life, gender and transgender groups with their own spin on climate, earnest eco-warriors, publicity-seeking hucksters, adrenalin junkies, college kids wanting a taste of the venerable tradition of public protest, and, as always, a great many people who don’t think that burning marijuana adds to the world’s CO2 load, marched down Manhattan’s streets. The chants echoed through the skyscraper canyons, the drums rolled, participants were caught up in a sense of unity and togetherness that some of them had never known. It was almost like politics, almost like the epochal marches that have toppled governments and changed history ever since the Paris mob stormed the Bastille.

Almost. Except street marches today are to real politics what street mime is to Shakespeare. This was an ersatz event: no laws will change, no political balance will tip, no UN delegate will have a change of heart. The world will roll on as if this march had never happened. And the marchers would have emitted less carbon and done more good for the world if they had all stayed home and studied books on economics, politics, science, religion and law. Marches like this create an illusion of politics and an illusion of meaningful activity to fill the void of postmodern life; the tribal ritual matters more than the political result.

Even the New York Times ruefully concedes that this week’s climate summit is unlikely to create the kind of breakthrough climate framework agreement that the protesters in Manhattan were agitating for today. After all, Germany’s Angela Merkel has taken a pass on attending the meeting, as have China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi.

In the annals of serious climate policy, however, an explosive essay landed in the Wall Street Journal this past Friday. Titled “Climate Science Is Not Settled“, it will have more impact than anything said or chanted by the misguided marchers. Its author, Dr. Steven A. Koonin, was the Undersecretary for Science in the Energy Department during President Barack Obama’s first term. Dr. Koonin argues that while certain things about the climate are in fact settled science, there is much that is still disputed among climate researchers. A taste:

The crucial scientific question for policy isn’t whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter: The climate has always changed and always will. Geological and historical records show the occurrence of major climate shifts, sometimes over only a few decades. We know, for instance, that during the 20th century the Earth’s global average surface temperature rose 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nor is the crucial question whether humans are influencing the climate. That is no hoax: There is little doubt in the scientific community that continually growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due largely to carbon-dioxide emissions from the conventional use of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate. There is also little doubt that the carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere for several centuries. The impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.

Rather, the crucial, unsettled scientific question for policy is, “How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?” Answers to that question at the global and regional levels, as well as to equally complex questions of how ecosystems and human activities will be affected, should inform our choices about energy and infrastructure.

But—here’s the catch—those questions are the hardest ones to answer. They challenge, in a fundamental way, what science can tell us about future climates.

It is this uncertainty about accurately predicting future outcomes, on both the local and aggregate levels, that makes sound policy decisions almost impossible:

Policy makers and the public may wish for the comfort of certainty in their climate science. But I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is “settled” (or is a “hoax”) demeans and chills the scientific enterprise, retarding its progress in these important matters. Uncertainty is a prime mover and motivator of science and must be faced head-on. It should not be confined to hushed sidebar conversations at academic conferences.

Society’s choices in the years ahead will necessarily be based on uncertain knowledge of future climates. That uncertainty need not be an excuse for inaction. There is well-justified prudence in accelerating the development of low-emissions technologies and in cost-effective energy-efficiency measures.

But climate strategies beyond such “no regrets” efforts carry costs, risks and questions of effectiveness, so nonscientific factors inevitably enter the decision. These include our tolerance for risk and the priorities that we assign to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental quality, and intergenerational and geographical equity.

Individuals and countries can legitimately disagree about these matters, so the discussion should not be about “believing” or “denying” the science. Despite the statements of numerous scientific societies, the scientific community cannot claim any special expertise in addressing issues related to humanity’s deepest goals and values. The political and diplomatic spheres are best suited to debating and resolving such questions, and misrepresenting the current state of climate science does nothing to advance that effort.

All of this is so very spot on—and so refreshing coming from a former Obama Administration official. We can’t encourage you enough to read the whole thing.

One thing we would add to the Koonin essay is that the rapidly developing information revolution is already contributing to declining carbon emissions in countries like the United States and the potential for changing technologies to create a cleaner, less energy-intensive economy is becoming more evident all the time. Fixing the environment isn’t about donning hair shirts and eating granola; it’s about harnessing the marvelous technological breakthroughs that will allow us and our descendants to live richer and more abundant lives on a more flourishing planet.

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  • ShadrachSmith

    Re: “It begins in the streets.”

    Your sanguine conclusion that it will stay in the streets and be forgotten ignores the success Democrat politics has experienced using political street theater. The basic message is to legislators, Democrats are the only thing standing between you and the pitchfork wielding mobs that we control. Give us a big pile of money (think Danegeld) to make me and my friends rich, or we will lead the mob against you, you personally, at your house. Sulla and the Jacobins successfully overawed legislators, I see no reason to believe the Democrats can’t.

    • qet

      Only hindsight will tell, of course, but calling these kids and dreamers who gathered in NYC a “mob” is being too generous. In both Sulla’s case and the Jacobins, the mob succeeded because (a) they slaughtered people freely, (b) in order to appropriate their property and wealth. Nor did this event resemble the workers’ marches of the early 20th century conducted amidst the strains of the Internationale. Those mobs, too, marched out of pure economic interest, and they also had power–the power to strike and thus harm capitalist enterprise, and it was the capitalists who then got the legislators’ attention.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The most successful political movement of modern times is the TEA Party movement. And it gave up on Rallies after about 18 months, when everyone had seen that there was huge support for small constitutional Government, and got organized. Once the political forces were organized, a Rally was seen as a waste of time and effort that would be better spent selecting and getting favorable candidates elected.

  • Jonathan Pappy Gilchrist

    I’m sorry, I laugh at the right when they condemn anyone as ‘socialist, tree hugging, granola eating’ for supporting anything that seems contrary with their point of view, i.e. keeping things pretty much the same as it has been for the past 100 years, (excluding the new deal of course). I’d say it’s pretty hard to trivialize 100,000 + marching in the streets even if it was liberal, secular, socialist New York, LOL!

    • qet

      Actually, it’s pretty easy to trivialize it. Via Meadia just did.

    • Suzyqpie

      Those 100,000 represent .0003 percent of the US population, using a 310M population figure. That makes it incredibly easy to trivialize.

    • George Turner

      It would be harder to condemn them as socialists if they would quit holding up banners demanding socialist revolution. We have cameras now, and the interweb tubes.

      A fairly recent paper in sociology noted that left-wing social movements fail in the US because they attract the usual left-wing protesters, and that most Americans reflexively roll their eyes, point, and laugh at the Marxist idiots in clown suits with paper mache heads..

      It’s even frustrating to “thinkers” and pundits on the left, as was evident in their constant offering of advice to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which couldn’t seem to go beyond pooping on police cars and whining. The talking heads and Democrat party strategists kept vainly hoping that the protesters would heed their words of political wisdom, and they might as well have been ranting “For god’s sakes, why don’t monkeys build banana plantations? I don’t understand it!”

      • Jonathan Pappy Gilchrist

        You make important points. Socialist ‘revolution’ in the USA is a ridiculous notion and has been for many years. But I wonder if people on the right, especially those in more insular communities, really know what socialism is. The right wing bull horn media has created a bogey man out of the very suggestion of anything socialistic in our government without realizing that a capitalistic, democratic government can and does apply socialized programs (idealistically) effectively and without infringing on our ingenuity and production in a capitalist nation. It is socialized programs that virtually ended geriatric poverty in this nation (social security, although it seems to be coming back), education (public school systems) These two particular systems are faltering terribly due to 33 years of budget cuts. I could go on with heath car but we all seem on the brink of civil war over that issue and this article is about climate change which I can’t understand how ‘socialists’ have anything to do with it. But it seems that if you’re on the right or on the left, one has no choice but to buy the whole package deal that comes along with being right or left. I resent that notion.

        As for the occupy movement, it was a good idea but, as I said, public school systems practically teach nothing now days and I’m afraid that was evident. One thing I can say for the Tea Party and it’s sympathizers, they certainly know how to use our democratic system and they vote! The liberal factions seem too busy having cocktails, to my deep disappointment.

  • Pete

    Good take on the loons marching in NYC.

  • RonRonDoRon

    The Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC is expected to draw 3.5 million people, mostly from areas nearby. If we accept organizers’ estimates, 300K people, drawn from all over the US, attended the climate march in NYC.

    I think this gives us an indication of how much importance is given to climate alarmism by the general public in the US.

  • You say, “a great many people … don’t think that burning marijuana adds to the world’s CO2 load.” That is because smoking marijuana does not add to the the world’s CO2 load in any real way. But growing it indoors, which is a huge a rapidly expanding industry, certainly does. Indoor cultivation, moreover, is demanded for legal cannabis production in the state of Washington. Intense lighting, ventilation, dehumidification and other energy-intensive techniques are necessary; many growers also pump in extra CO2 to enhance production. Mother Jones reports that 9 percent of household electricity use in California goes to indoor cannabis production. Yet environmentalists almost never talk about this issue, as it features the wrong “bad guys.” For an excellent overview, see

  • Jeff R.

    Wow. Via Meadia unusually harsh in its condemnation. I like it.

  • What’s required to allow our descendants to live richer and more abundant lives on a more flourishing planet: A) Harnessing technology, B) Limited government, C) higher-quality teachers.

  • James Donnaught

    No comments from the author about those dozens-strong teabagger rallies, of course.

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