By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (X)

The series explained.

For some time now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to wrap up this series of blog posts. I can think of no better way than with Ross Douthat’s column in today’s New York Times. Douthat, a conservative, is too grounded in reality to argue anything so stupid as the idea that human-caused climate change doesn’t exist. Instead, he unintentionally traces the devolution of respectable global-warming skepticism.

1. Global warming isn’t real. This position was popular at one time, and you occasionally hear it espoused today, though not by anyone who has spent any time learning about the subject. As has been well-documented, the current decade is the warmest on record, followed by the 1990s and then by the ’80s.

2. Global warming is real, but it’s not our fault. Yes, the earth has been warming and cooling for millennia for reasons that are poorly understood, but that are probably related to solar activity. But the current warming trend is occurring with unusual rapidity. Carbon-dioxide levels are the highest they’ve been since the age of the dinosaurs thanks to emissions from factories, power plants and automobiles, and the science of how CO2 contributes to global warming is well established.

3. Global warming is good for you. Now we have arrived in Douthat Land. After asserting the obvious — “Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance” — Douthat then goes on to make a spectacle of his own, embracing the views of fringe scientists like Freeman Dyson and others, who claim that even though human-caused global warming is real, we shouldn’t be all that worried about it. Douthat writes:

Their perspective is grounded, in part, on the assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime.

I’m not even going to bother to engage in a debate over whether a hotter planet will be good for us. I think it’s enough that the so-called respectable right, having given up the idea that global warming isn’t taking place, or that humans aren’t contributing to it, have retreated to such an absurd position. If that’s where Douthat and company want to make their stand, they are welcome to it.

And though I am surely not done with writing about climate change, I am done with this series.

All posts in this series.

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  1. Brad Deltan

    Give Douhat credit, Dan – he slyly sneaks in the real reason why Conservatives deny-deny-deny climate change in the last sentence of his piece:

    Not every danger has a regulatory solution, and sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through.

    Conservatism, at its heart, is always about selfishness. Me Me Me Me Me Me. In some ways, this is not a bad thing: after all, a totalitarianism government is, by definition, all about “Us” to the point of killing everyone who’s not “Us”. Encouraging people to stand up for “Me” is a good thing there. Unfortunately, for most of the USA, we’ve got too much “Me” and far too little “Us” in our national thinking. Climate change denial means more money for today, and worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.

    It’s not unlike the record industry. You know why record labels and the RIAA are suing college students over file sharing? Because for the moment, it’s more profitable than the alternative: building a long-term solution. Even though EVERYONE sees what a flamingly stupid decision it is; as long as it makes more money than not, and makes it right now, then it’s the decision they’ll follow. Climate change is no different.

  2. Brad Deltan

    And perhaps unsurprisingly, Paul Krugman has beaten me to my own point in my first comment, and done so in much better fashion. 🙂

  3. The idea that some good things can come from climate change isn’t that crazy though.

    Just to go for the obvious example: if the tundra of Canada and Russia can be converted to arable farmland, that could be a positive development for feeding a rising global population, no?

    Now I’m not saying that climate change is net-positive overall. Certainly, at a local level, there are going to be lots of species that will fail to adapt, and the risk of ecosystem collapse in at least some areas is real (e.g. the Sahara spreading across more of Africa, making it even harder to feed the already hungry population there).

    But there are at least some pros to go with the many cons, and it’s not totally unreasonable for Douthat to have pointed this out. There are certainly portions of his editorial to criticize, but I’m not sure this is the best one to focus on.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Chris: I will let others deal with those hypotheticals except to point out that land that is currently arable will be affected as well. If we can grow wheat on the tundra, it stands to reason that we may not be able to grow wheat where it’s planted now. Among other things, we will need mass migrations from areas that become essentially uninhabitable to newly inhabitable areas.

      Last year, those wild-eyed liberal Al Gore-lovers, also known as the U.S. military, unveiled a study that predicted a worldwide rise in terrorism and unrest resulting from global warming-related “violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics.” Douthat might do well to sit down and read his own paper.

  4. BP Myers

    Hilarious to see Douthat’s column got only eight comments. That has to be a good sign.

    Confess too I had to struggle through it, not at all sure where he was going. One thing that did come to mind is I’m old enough to remember when “conservative” meant just that — someone who wanted to conserve things. Alas, our young, virgin columnist is not.

    Hilarious for him to claim the aplocalyptic predictions: famine, energy crises, etc., haven’t played out. Not sure what world he’s living in.

    Course, when your country is about eight percent of the world’s population yet uses upwards of thirty percent of its resources, when its military is the largest consumer of oil in the world, it shields you from a lot.

    But it’s coming, young Master Douthat. It’s coming.

  5. CE Stead

    I’ll take #2, with a side of french fries.

    These temperature swings are the product of millenia. This may be the first time in human history that we are even aware of the extent to which the planet’s temperature has changed over time, although I admit I do live on the oceanside residue of a retreating polar ice cap that once covered North America that was also created by ‘global warming’. How quickly the other changes happened is the result of estimation, so how sure are we that it’s happening unusually fast?

    We carbon-based life forms bear some guilt, but not all of it and it’s the strident insistance on human fault that has prevented progress on the matter. I wrote a column in response to ClimateGate at the time basically saying that this collusion seemed panicky and hurt their case (similar to my reaction to JournoList) but that the reason didn’t really matter – we should just develop renewables and eliminate fossil fuel as a matter of profitable industry and national defense, perhaps beginning with Cape Wind. That column drew a response from the Union of Concerned Scientists that it was nice that I wanted to solve the problem but I must also agree with the reason why there was a problem, not merely want to solve it.

    @Brad – there are enormous future profits in clean energy, and our supply of fossil fuels is increasingly controlled by hostile foreign powers, so I would suggest the true conservative ‘Me, Me!’ position is in fact to make ourselves more self-sufficient. Official conservatives are just too repelled by the hair shirt mentality, and have allowed eco-emotionalism to cloud their fiscal judgement.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @CE: When it comes to the causes of climate change, I always prefer the views of Republican State Committee members over those of 97 percent of atmospheric scientists.

      There are two problems with your position: (1) by absolving human activity, you drain the matter of any sense of urgency; and (2) if humans are not contributing to global warming, then we can go a long way toward meeting your goals by burning massive amounts of good old, mined-in-the-USA coal.

  6. BP Myers

    @CE Stead said: it was nice that I wanted to solve the problem but I must also agree with the reason why there was a problem, not merely want to solve it.

    I’d love you to provide a link to that. Hard to believe scientists cared one way or the other what a non-scientist had to say about science.

    Not saying it didn’t happen. Just that I find it . . . hard to believe.

  7. CE Stead

    @DK – we don’t need global warming to leave fossil fuels. BP has made that VERY attractive. Likewise, the economic and human costs of coal mining make that another dwindling resource.

    And again, #2 does NOT absolve humans, but places human activity as a contributory factor along side the reversal of magnetic polarity, sun activity, cyclical movement of tectonic plates, and all kinds of other keen stuff we have no control over.

  8. Brad Deltan

    so I would suggest the true conservative ‘Me, Me!’ position is in fact to make ourselves more self-sufficient.

    @CE Stead: indeed you are correct, but only if you take the traditional view of “conservatism”. As I said, the logical extreme of conservatism that’s the dominant form we see now, is always going for what maximizes your profit TODAY. Completely ignore whatever’s coming tomorrow, or next year, or next generation. Only focus on TODAY.

    Or perhaps more accurately: focus only on the next quarterly earning statement to the stockholders. Which in this case is certainly the equivalent of “today”.

    Right now it is far, far more profitable to preserve the status quo of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Green fuels have terrible ROI, unless you put in comparable subsidies to what the fossil fuel industry receives. But it’s more profitable for them to lobby to preserve their subsidies (and deny anyone else access to them) than it is to change things.

    Krugman’s article does a nice job explaining this overall concept.

  9. CE Stead

    @BP – I’m putting the link in the comment, but in case it doesn’t work – here’s the text. It ran on Feb. 23, 2010.

    To avert worst of warming, first we must recognize it
    February 23, 2010

    Cynthia Stead’s Feb. 18 column made the shocking claim that global warming is a “hoax.” That’s like saying the moon landing was faked. Assuming tens of thousands of NASA engineers participated in such a conspiracy is ludicrous. The same is true for assuming tens of thousands of scientists would do the same.

    The basic science that says humans are causing global temperatures to rise and the climate to change is backed up by the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, NASA and every major scientific body with any stake in this issue. The evidence is from temperature records, satellite measurements and air samples that show carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels and destroying forests is on the rise.

    In any case, I do agree that regardless of whether or not you accept global warming science it makes sense to pursue clean energy. But for our country to produce enough clean energy to actually prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we do need to recognize the scientific reality here.

    Aaron Huertas

    Press secretary, Union of Concerned Scientists

    Washington, D.C.”

    I assure you, nobody was more agog than I was at this letter. And I did not say that I thought it was a hoax, but that many did – which I think is a reasonable assessment. But this is a fine example of the messanic among warming advocates who insist that you not only agree, but must agree with their resoning.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @CE: Nothing in that letter any reasonable person would disagree with. If you think pursuing a clean-energy policy is good economically and to make us less dependent on foreign sources of oil, then that’s fine, but where’s the urgency? I do recognize that you have been a steadfast proponent of Cape Wind. We should have windmills everywhere, not just in Nantucket Sound.

  10. BP Myers

    Thanks, CE. Perhaps incorrect of them to claim YOU said global warming was a hoax, however looks like they used that as an opportunity to educate those you spoke of on why it isn’t so.

    Nice to see the Press Secretary of the Union of Concerned Scientists is doing his job, anyhow.

  11. Michael Pahre

    @Dan: Freeman Dyson is absolutely not a “fringe scientist.” You are totally off-base to label him like that. He is a highly-regarded and brilliant theoretical physicist.

    That said, he has, throughout his career, held some fringe or crazy or zany positions on some scientific (or related) topics. Google him and you’ll get some chuckles.

    You would be more appropriate to say that Dyson is “among a small group of scientists who hold fringe positions on climate change.”

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: Not to get all defensive, but he is a fringe scientist when it comes to climate change, which is what we’re discussing. There was a fascinating profile of him last year in the New York Times Magazine.

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