Environmentalists have long sought to use the threat of catastrophic global warming to persuade the public to embrace a low-carbon economy. But recent events, including the tainting of some climate research, have shown the risks of trying to link energy policy to climate science.
by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
The 20-year effort by environmentalists to establish climate science as the primary basis for far-reaching action to decarbonize the global energy economy today lies in ruins. Backlash in reaction to “Climategate” and recent controversies involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2007 assessment report are but the latest evidence that such efforts have evidently failed.
While the urge to blame fossil-fuel-funded skeptics for this recent bad turn of events has proven irresistible for most environmental leaders and pundits, forward-looking greens wishing to ascertain what might be salvaged from the wreckage would be well advised to look closer to home. Climate science, even at its most uncontroversial, could never motivate the remaking of the entire global energy economy. Efforts to use climate science to threaten an apocalyptic future should we fail to embrace green proposals, and to characterize present-day natural disasters as terrifying previews of an impending day of reckoning, have only served to undermine the credibility of both climate science and progressive energy policy.
The Endless Weather Wars
The habit of overstating the current state of climate science knowledge, and in particular our understanding of the relationship between global warming and present-day weather events, has been difficult for environmentalists to give up because, on one level, it has worked so well for them.
Global warming first exploded into mass public consciousness in the summer of 1988, when droughts, fires in the Amazon, and heat waves in the United States were widely attributed as warning signs of an eco-apocalypse to come. Former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth held the first widely covered congressional hearing on the subject that summer and admits having targeted the hearing for the hottest day of the year and turned off the air conditioning in the room to ensure that the conditions would be sweltering for the assembled media.
Such tactics have only intensified over the past two decades. In the run-up to U.N. climate talks in Kyoto in 1997, the Clinton Administration recruited Al Roker and other weathermen to explain global warming to the public. In 2006, Al Gore used his “Inconvenient Truth” slide show to link Hurricane Katrina, droughts, and floods to warming. And some environmental groups have routinely implied that present-day extreme weather and natural disasters are evidence of anthropogenic warming.
But it turned out that both sides could play the weather game. Skeptics also started pointing to weather events like snowstorms as evidence of no warming. While environmental advocates frequently criticize opponents such as Sen. James Inhofe for conflating weather with climate, the reality is that both sides abuse the science in the service of their political agendas. Climate change models, created in an effort to understand the potential long-term effect of global warming on regional weather trends, can no more tell us anything useful about today’s extreme weather events than last month’s snow storms can inform us as to whether global warming is occurring.
Climate Science Disasters
For more than 20 years, advocates have simultaneously overestimated the certainty with which climate science could predict the future and underestimated the economic and technological challenges associated with rapidly decarbonizing the energy economy. The oft-heard mantra that “All we lack is political will” assumes that the solutions to global warming are close at hand and that the primary obstacle to implementing them is public ignorance fed by fossil-fuel-funded skeptics.
Environmental advocates — with help from pollsters, psychologists, and cognitive scientists — have long understood that global warming represented a particularly problematic threat around which to mobilize public opinion. The threat is distant, abstract, and difficult to visualize. Faced with a public that has seemed largely indifferent to the possibility of severe climactic disruptions resulting from global warming, some environmentalists have tried to characterize the threat as more immediate, mostly by suggesting that global warming was already adversely impacting human societies, primarily in the form of increasingly deadly natural disasters.
The result has been an ever-escalating set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic, imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific, short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to become outspoken advocates of action to address global warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.
Little surprise then, that most of the recent controversies besetting climate science involve efforts to move the proximity of the global warming threat closer to the present. The most explosive revelations of Climategate involved disputed methodological techniques in which some researchers merged data sets to reinforce certain contentions, such as temperatures rising sharply in recent decades, resembling the so-called “hockey stick” shape. Whatever one thinks of the quality of the data sets, the methods used to combine them, or the efforts by some to shield the underlying data from critics, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those involved were trying to fit the data to a trend that they already expected to see – namely that the spike in global carbon emissions in recent decades tracked virtually in lockstep with a concomitant spike in present-day global temperatures.
Other faulty or sloppy claims in the IPCC’s voluminous reports — such as the contention that global warming could melt Himalayan glaciers by 2035 — followed the same pattern.
Perhaps most problematic of all, with some environmentalists convinced that connecting global warming to natural disasters was the key to climate policy progress, researchers felt enormous pressure to demonstrate a link. But multiple studies using different methodologies and data sets show no statistically significant relationship between the rising cost of natural disasters and global warming. And according to a review sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Munich Re, researchers are unlikely to be able to unequivocally link storm or flood losses to anthropogenic warming for several decades, if even then. This is not because there is no evidence of increasing extreme weather, but rather because the rising costs of natural disasters have been driven so overwhelmingly by social and economic factors — more people with more wealth living in harm’s way.
Yet prominent environmental advocates, including Al Gore, have continued to make claims linking global warming to natural disasters. And in its 2007 report, the IPCC — ignoring evidence to the contrary — misrepresented disaster-loss science when it published a graph linking global temperature increases with rising financial losses from natural disasters.
Action in the Face of Uncertainty
It was only a matter of time before such claims would begin to undermine public confidence in climate science. Weather is not climate and linguistic subterfuges, such as the oft-repeated assertion that extreme weather events and natural disasters are “consistent with” climate change, do not change the reality that advocates and scientists who make such assertions are conflating short-term weather events with long-term climactic trends in a way that simply cannot be supported by the science.
For 20 years, greens and many scientists have overstated the certainty of climate disaster out of the belief that governments could not be motivated to act if they viewed the science as highly uncertain. And yet governments routinely take strong action in the face of highly uncertainty events. California requires strict building codes and has invested billions to protect against earthquakes even as earthquake science has shifted its focus from prediction to preparedness. Recently, the federal government mobilized impressively and effectively to prevent an avian flu epidemic whose severity was unknown.
In the end, there is no avoiding the enormous uncertainties inherent to our understanding of climate change. Whether 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, or 450 or 550, is the right number in terms of atmospheric stabilization, any prudent strategy to minimize future risks associated with catastrophic climate change involves decarbonizing our economy as rapidly as possible. Stronger evidence of climate change from scientists was never going to drive Americans to demand economically painful limits on carbon emissions or energy use. And uncertainty about climate science will not deter Americans from embracing energy and other policies that they perceive to be in the nation’s economic, national security, and environmental interest. This was the case in 1988 and is still largely the case today.
But the danger now is that having spent two decades demanding that the public and policy-makers obey climate science, and having established certainty and scientific consensus as the standard by which climate action should be judged, environmentalists risk undermining the case for building a clean-energy economy. Having allowed the demands of advocacy efforts to wash back into the production of climate science, the danger today is that the discrediting of the science will wash back into the larger effort to transform our energy policy.
Now is the time to free energy policy from climate science. In recent years, bipartisan agreement has grown on the need to decarbonize our energy supply through the expansion of renewables, nuclear power, and natural gas, as well as increased funding of research and development of new energy technologies. Carbon caps may remain as aspirational targets, but the primary role for carbon pricing, whether through auctioning pollution permits or a carbon tax, should be to fund low-carbon energy research, development, and deployment.
No longer conscripted to justify and rationalize binding carbon caps or the modernization and decarbonization of our energy systems, climate science can get back to being primarily a scientific enterprise. The truth is that once climate science becomes detached from the expectation that it will establish a standard for allowable global carbon emissions that every nation on earth will heed, no one will much care about the hockey stick or the disaster-loss record, save those whose business, as scientists, is to attend to such matters.
Climate science can still usefully inform us about the possible trajectories of the global climate and help us prepare for extreme weather and natural disasters, whether climate change ultimately results in their intensification or not. And understood in its proper role, as one of many reasons why we should decarbonize the global economy, climate science can even help contribute to the case for taking such action. But so long as environmentalists continue to demand that climate science drive the transformation of the global energy economy, neither the science, nor efforts to address climate change, will be well served.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Ted Nordhaus, left, and Michael Shellenberger are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and a recent collection of energy and climate writings, The Emerging Climate Consensus, with a preface by Ross Gelbspan, available for download at www.TheBreakthrough.org
© 2010, Yale Environment 360. All rights reserved. Do not republish.