THE WORLD now has a rough deadline for action on climate change.
Nations need to take aggressive action in the next 15 years to cut carbon emissions, in order to forestall the worst effects of global warming, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Expect a certain part of our political class to insist that man-made climate change is not consensus science, and that until it is, nothing should be done. The problem there is obvious: By the time all the skeptics are persuaded, it will be too late for an effective response. In that regard, climate change poses a test of our democracy’s ability to address a threat pressing enough to require a relatively prompt response but too complicated for a lay person to assess on his own authority.
Similarly, most politicians who must wrestle with the issue, like most journalists who write about it, don’t have the expertise to design the computer models and do the complex analysis necessary to evaluate the threat themselves. So the matter becomes an epistemological issue: How does one decide what to credit, trust, believe?
Most people turn to the consensus of scientific opinion. That is, to things like the UN panel. Others, however, define themselves as skeptics or contrarians, an identity that, once adopted, is often hard to abandon. Doubters might consider Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and co-founder of Berkeley Earth, who was once such a skeptic himself.
The idea that every skeptic must be satisfied before acting is wrongheaded.
“Call me a converted skeptic,” he wrote in July 2012. “Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”
Muller hoped his careful work would help settle the issue. No such luck. Other skeptics have seized on a supposed 12- to 15-year pause in the increase in global average surface air temperature, as though that creates critical questions about the broad scientific consensus on warming. Actually, the likely explanation is that the oceans are absorbing the heat. Then there’s the whole industry-allied pseudoscience sector, whose goal appears to be to help create the impression that climatologists are locked in genuine dispute.
But the idea that every prominent skeptic must be satisfied before the country moves forward is wrongheaded. Senator John McCain, who advocated a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases during his 2008 presidential campaign, had it right back then. He noted that if we moved forward and it turned out that climate-change believers were mistaken, we’d still have a cleaner planet, whereas if we did nothing and the skeptics were wrong, we would have done a profound disservice to future generations.
Back then, there was a real prospect that cap-and-trade could pass. Now that the issue has been hyper-politicized, it’s hard to imagine that happening in the next few years. McCain, certainly, is no longer active on it. But the United States still needs to find a way to make the price of carbon-based energy reflect its true environmental cost, both to get market signals right and to persuade other countries to do the same. As Senator Edward Markey, long a leader on this issue, puts it: “You can’t preach temperance from a bar stool.”
And yet, as Markey notes, there has been some important progress. With the higher auto mileage standards, the burgeoning (tax-credit-nurtured) clean-energy sector, the multi-state effort on renewable energy requirements for utilities, and the natural gas revolution, the United States has lowered its carbon emissions by around 8 percent (against a 2005 baseline), about half our target of a 17 percent reduction by 2020.
Further, later this year, the EPA will propose rules to reduce emissions from existing power plants, many of them carbon-dioxide-spewing coal facilities.
Such a move will trigger opposition from the coal-producing states and denunciations from the doubters. But the EPA is on solid legal ground here. A regulatory approach may not be the preferred path forward (and more action will be required over the medium term). Still, it’s a viable short-term course in a country where Congress is so paralyzed that it can no longer act according to the standards of reasonable prudence.