When fear-mongers choose not to fear

by Matthew Berger

The irony is how calm they are. It has been proven repeatedly that global surface temperatures are rising at unprecedented rates, that people are dying as a direct result of the catastrophes these changes have caused, and that ways of life – not to mention entire species – are disappearing. Certainly statements like these contain bits of alarmism, but they are facts and whether they are found to be alarmist or simply alarming is subjective. But those neoconservative voices at the American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal editorial board who normally jump into full battle dress at the smallest blip of a siren are conspicuously calm in the face of what the vast majority of people see as overwhelming evidence for a war on climate change.

Meanwhile, the mere possibility of a nuclear North Korea or Iran or the existence of a Russia that insists on expressing something other than humility or gratitude to Washington leads directly to a declaration of the U.S.’s responsibility to act on behalf of those who cannot help themselves – to liberate the Iranian people from what climate change denier Bret Stephens has called their “Hitlerian” leader, for instance – while simultaneously saving the U.S. population from imminent destruction by “rogue states.” But when it comes to taking the relatively cheap and easy actions required to prevent a future refugee explosion – with all its security implications – they cry that the world has been fooled by alarmism and scare tactics.

At the very least, Stephens & Co. should be warning us of the welldocumented national security implications of global climate change. (Shouldn’t we, after all, just listen to our generals on the ground?)

Yet, since the posting of the notorious stolen emails a couple weeks ago, a small band of climate science deniers has re-emerged for a brief moment in the spotlight. It has faded this week as new reports have come out re-affirming the already firm science. Never one to concern himself with the facts, Bret Stephens has tried to broaden his critique, ”suspecting” climate scientists, activists, officials et al. of what he “would call the totalitarian impulse.”

“This is not to say that global warming true believers are closet Stalinists. But their intellectual methods are instructively similar,” charges Stephens. Of course, the fervor, utopianism, misanthropy, intolerance, “monocausalism”, indifference to evidence and grandiosity that Stephens says make up the totalitarian psychology are just as applicable to his own worldview – particularly how it regards climate change. This is not to say that Stephens is a closet fascist. But his intellectual methods are instructively similar…

(After all, if “indifference to evidence” is one indication of “the totalitarian impulse” described by Stephens, how embarrassing it must be for him to assert, as he did in his column Tuesday, “The earth has registered no discernable warming in the past 10 years” when, on that very same day, the World Meteorological Organization reported that “The decade from 2000 to 2009 was warmer than the decade from 1990 to 1999, which in turn was warmer than from 1980 to 1989,” and further that “The year 2009 is likely to rank in the top 10 warmest on record since the beginning of instrumental climate records in 1850…”)

Why are climate change deniers like Stephens more interested in possible but unlikely scenarios like nuclear attacks by rogue states rather than the real and ongoing threat to national security and global stability posed by climate change? Why the concern for the sort of destruction envisioned by science fiction books and the complacency in the face of catastrophes — such as climate change — that have already occurred and are ongoing?

Some point to the money. One of the American Enterprise Institute’s resident eco-rebutters, Steven Hayward, wrote a Weekly Standard cover story this week on “the corrupt cabal of global warming alarmists.” Kenneth Green, another member of what AEI calls their “environmental team”, wrote a similar piece for their journal, The American. AEI says it “has been especially busy lately responding to numerous press inquiries about the ‘Climategate’ scandal.” They have also received nearly $2 million from Exxon Mobil since 2001, according to MediaMatters.

Stephens defends Exxon, , pointing out that Exxon donated $7 million to a “grab-bag of public policy institutes”, including respected mainstream groups like the Aspen Institute and the Asia Society, last year. But Exxon also knows that its interests are best preserved by spending over $20 million this year on lobbyists and political campaigns.

Others have pointed to a rootedness in the status quo. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, in announcing her agency’s decision to declare greenhouse gases a public danger, defended the finding against the campaign being orchestrated by climate change deniers. “Raising doubts – even in the face of overwhelming evidence – is a tactic that has been used by defenders of the status quo for years.,” said Jackson. To be fair, it is only a small minority of commentators and even businesses that refuse to accept the very real threat of a climate changing at an accelerating pace, but maybe those who do decide to ignore the facts and damage simply are not ready – psychologically or economically – to undertake the very affordable adjustments necessary for mitigation.

It could also be the simple desire to be the bearer of good news – that reassuring figure who is so easy to like but so treacherous to trust. Sarah Palin, seeing an easy bandwagon to jump on, wrote an op-ed parroting others’ critiques of politicized science – a politicization that, of course, came at the hand of her and other climate change deniers, rather than a group of researchers in a lab. But her op-ed was clearly directed at the choir – the only people who take her seriously – and even Palin has dithered on whether or not to deny the role of humans in climate change.

Palin’s concerns are convenient and common among the climate change deniers which she echoes. “Any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs. And those costs are real,” her op-ed says. Recognizing this short-term difficulty in current climate action proposals, Stephens says that those concerned about rising sea levels and the like want “to deal with global warming by re-engineering the world economy.”

In climate activists’ ideal world, he would be right. Though they are far too pragmatic and – after decades of this war on climate change – jaded to seek such a re-engineering. It is what their wildest dreams are made of. And how could it not be? Cheap coal, for instance, is not actually nearly as cheap as its price tag says it is. Economists know that price tag is inherently flawed, leaving out the unquantifiable costs – despite the best efforts of researchers to quantify them– imposed on lungs, food, water supplies, future generations and general well-being. The fact that this coal is still cheap enough to allow people to say that the economic costs of reducing emissions are too high is just one way in which an inefficient, myopic, shoddy economic system perverts itself, the free market, the planet on which it depends and the society that depends on it.

Nobel-laureate economist Thomas Schelling said at the National Press Club last week, “When people talk about cap and trade they rarely talk about how important it is for consumer prices to go up…I was hoping when gas prices went up to $4 they would stay that way so people would get used to that as the natural price and when they went down again we could put a gas tax in place so we could get the revenue and not the Middle East countries.” He cited post-war Europe, where, he said, people were glad to have even high-cost fuel after the rationing that had preceded it.

High prices scare the science deniers, but this is because they have been closing their eyes to how high current prices really are when one takes into account the the melting of glaciers and snowpacks on which agriculture depends, the trillions of dollars lost to climate change-related extreme weather, and the increasing health costs associated with the spread of vector-borne diseases, air pollution and contaminated water supplies.

Of course, even most deniers don’t fully trust what they are saying. Hayward admits “Climate change is a genuine phenomenon, and there is a nontrivial risk of major consequences in the future.” His problem, and the others’, is with the alarmist “hysteria.” But hysteria goes both ways, and hysteria based on observable fact seems a bit more justified than that based on denial of those facts.

MediaMatters has a detailed, constantly-updated rundown of misinformation surrounding the push for a climate science debate.

Author/environmentalist George Monbiot has a Brit-heavy lineup of top climate change deniers, in travel-friendly playing card format.

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  1. Believe it or not, the undeniable rise in global temperatures over the past few decades does not necessarily indicate a secular change. Whether the catastrophist view of things is correct will only be known with reasonable certainly some decades or perhaps even centuries from now. In the meantime, cheaper ways of dealing with global warming will have been developed. To turn the world upside down based on temperature trends only decades old is dicey public policy. (One can say doing nothing is dicey too; but radical changes in policy have economic and social consequences that could be more harmful than the expected consequences of warming).

    We know for certain that CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, and that this is largely due to human activity. However, there are other forces that dwarf the impact humans have on the Earth’s climate. A very slight reduction in the Sun’s output would plunge us back into Ice Age conditions. In fact, the writer should know that we are currently in an extended interglacial period; we are in fact overdo for a return to Ice Age conditions (this based on climate trends over the past few million years). It’s not nearly as simple as some would like it to be.

    We cannot be certain that the catastrophic changes predicted by some will in fact occur. That the nations of the world should embrace the catastrophist view at the expense of economic growth is easy for people like the writer to advocate — he already enjoys a standard of living higher than 95% of all humans who have ever lived. It’s easy for the writer or Mr. Schelling to view $4 gasoline with equanimity; not so for the average Joe who must drive to work to feed his family. (Note to urban intellectuals: there is no public transit in many places. And car-pooling is not practical in many rural areas.)

    I personally try to leave a small carbon footprint: although we live in rural America, we own one car and drive it as little as possible, we get most of our heat from a carbon-neutral pellet stove, we recycle diligently, we eat little meat (expansion of livestock herds leads to increased methane in the atmosphere, as well as depriving the world’s poor of affordable grain), etc.
    If everyone in the developed world lived as I do, we probably wouldn’t be worrying about global warming. But trying to compel everyone to live differently is a well-nigh impossible task, and would if achieved almost certainly result in falling living standards, social unrest and violence.

    The real problem is overpopulation. The fact that we can (theoretically) feed seven or eight billion people doesn’t mean we should have that many. We live in a world where technology has overcome many of the natural checks on population growth, but human beings have only begun to start limiting births. Given current levels of political economy and cultural awareness, the earth can probably provide a sustainable life for 4 billion or so people. But we are closing in on 8 billion. That is a much bigger problem than warming. Just finding enough water for that many people looks to be an impossible task. We may find that Malthus was right after all, and that technology has simply put off the day of reckoning he prophesied.

    But to return the writer’s concern, global warming. Although the disappearance of species is lamentable, it is also inevitable. The great apes and most of the great cats have been on the road to extinction for a long time, and are doomed unless human civilization collapses completely quite soon. Great dyings due to climate change have occurred before; new species fill the void. Coral reefs have disappeared from the seas in the past, only to be built up again. As an amateur naturalist I mourn the passing of so much of our epoch’s fauna, but such events do occur throughout geologic time. Change happens in nature, whether we will it or not.

    I worry that my two favorite cities, Boston and New York, will be submerged by rising sea levels, but I don’t expect human intervention to save them. Grandiose plans devised and implemented by technocrats and politicians will, on the evidence of history, cause widespread human misery. We would do better to simply accept the possibility that current warming trends will continue, and develop plans to lessen the effects, as opposed to attempting to reverse the trends through government-imposed changes that disrupt our entire way of life. If New Orleans and Bangladesh are going to go into the sea at some point, we would be wiser to simply move the people inland than attempt to coerce the world with carbon taxes and other government-imposed changes in lifestyle. And rest assured, only something along the lines of world government can impose the changes that people like the writer want to see.

    One might also mention the positive aspects of global warming. While agriculture in some areas will be hurt by warming, overall agricultural productivity will rise. Burning of fossil fuels (for heat) will decrease. Global warming is not necessarily a one-way street.

    I am, finally, disappointed by the overly didactic and almost strident tone of the piece, something one expects to find all over the internet, but not on Lobelog.

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