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.