Climate Policy and the Case for Humility

[Editor’s update: The Heartland Institute and the Independent Institute are rebutting the alarmist claims at the Global Climate Action Summit. We are broadcasting live from Independent’s Conference Center in Oakland, across the bay from the San Francisco summit. Sept. 13 coverage is here;  Sept. 14 coverage is here.]

The Global Climate Action Summit is September 12-14 in San Francisco. One purpose is to “ratchet up the ambition of national climate action plans.” Another is to “provide the confidence to governments to ‘step up’ and trigger this next level of ambition sooner rather than later.”

If you attend the Action Summit, you will hear arguments that go much like this: The “science is settled,” 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real and that humans are the main cause, and the planet will suffer irreparable harm if something is not done immediately. If you do not agree with these claims, you must be a tool of energy companies or of funders of right-wing political causes. The easy default position to take in the face of such claims is to trust the Global Climate Action folks.

But, is the science settled and do 97 percent of climate scientists agree? It is useful to know where there are agreements and where there are disagreements. There is, in fact, consensus among climate scientists that:

  • global temperatures have increased overall since 1880
  • humans are contributing to a rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations
  • Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have a warming effect on the planet

There is a great deal of debate about the following:

  • whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes
  • how much the planet will warm in the 21st century
  • whether warming is ‘dangerous’
  • whether radically reducing CO2 emissions will improve the climate and human well being

Many confuse the consensus over the first three points as covering all climate change science. Yes, there is a consensus about those three points, but the claim of consensus falls apart once the next four are considered. Furthermore, even if there were consensus about all final four points, that consensus does not tell what ought to be done.

In thinking about climate policy it may be useful to remember H. L. Mencken’s claim that “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—qqqneat, plausible, and wrong.” Humility in policy arenas is not nearly as attractive as making bold claims and public pronouncements. But, before spending trillions of dollars to fight climate change, a little humility might be a good place to start. Frankly, we do not know nearly as much about many things as is widely supposed. Climate scientists, like macroeconomists, are very good at predicting the past. But, human systems and the systems that create climate changes are nonlinear and dynamic and, therefore, quite unpredictable.

I doubt that speakers at the Global Climate Change Summit will talk about what I think is our best bet, which is to adapt and mitigate, rather than spend billions to prevent change. But that would be an unpopular position among the climate change activists and it is not popular with politicians or reporters. Proposals to adapt and mitigate are poorly received when talking about climate change. The poor reception might be because risk is something that people in general evaluate poorly. There is a lot of pressure on politicians to “do something.” Pick up any newspaper and there are letters to the editor from the old, young, informed, uninformed, frightened, and optimistic that something must be done. And so on.

Even local politicians face electoral pressures to do something, to adopt more climate friendly policies, to choose electricity produced by wind or solar, and to subsidize supposedly green projects. Voters reward politicians who appear to solve problems. Waiting to adapt is easily characterized as doing nothing. Few politicians like being called a “do nothing” politician. Choosing to wait to adapt is difficult to explain in public meetings or the press. Reporters like talking to the “do something” folks because stories about new policies and their consequences are easier to write, especially if the reporter is a “do something” reporter.

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Randy Simmons is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of Economics at Utah State University, and co-author of Nature Unbound: Bureaucracy vs. the Environment.



Randy T Simmons is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of Economics and Director of the Center on Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University's Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.
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