Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fiddling While California Burns

“It is true that there’s virtually no Republican who accepts the science that virtually is unanimous. I mean there is no scientific question. There’s just political denial for various reasons, best known to those people who are in denial. But whatever the thoughts of the Republicans, we here in California are on the front lines.”
—California Governor Jerry Brown, Sunday on ABC’s This Week

In the thick of a debate, participants invariably strive to put their hands on the unassailable authority, the authoritative source that puts the matter to rest once and for all.

In a certain time and place that moment may have once come when someone proclaimed with finality, “Because the Bible says so.” But that only worked as long as everyone had the same Bible and the same interpretation of it. Or if the speaker was accepted as the ultimate arbiter of the Good Book’s meaning. Nowadays such an appeal to authority is more likely to take the form of “because that’s what the science says” or “the scientific consensus is overwhelming.”

You may say that citing science is worlds away from citing scripture. You may say that scripture is merely the ignorant writings of a long dead superstitious people, while science is something that has been tested and proven. On a matter like climate change, you may even be one of those who say that the science is settled.

But the very nature of the scientific method is that science is never settled. Newton’s laws were superseded by Einstein’s theories. Scientists’ understanding of how the world works is continually revised to take into account new information gleaned from new observations and new experiments. Scientists are more likely to describe their findings as “the best information we have at this point.” It is journalists—not scientists—who take those findings and report them broadly as “news”—leaving their audience confused when this year’s scientific finding directly contradicts what we “knew” last year. (For an enlightening look at not only how science keeps getting reevaluated but how news coverage can affect it, check out this recent story from National Public Radio.)

So why has the scientific study of climate change become so politically contentious? Democrats say it is because Republicans are “climate change deniers.” On the surface that certainly makes Republicans sound backward and ignorant. But if you examine what individual Republicans actually say, very few deny that the climate is—and always has been—in the process of changing. What they question is whether human activity is decisive in that change or whether that change can be predicted with any meaningful accuracy or whether government action can make any difference. In other words, the Democratic rhetoric represents more than a bit of misdirection.

Let’s assume, though, that Democrats are correct. What is their solution to climate change? It seems to consist of a system of carbon taxes and carbon trading. In other words, a major shift of business profits to the government instead of using them to reinvest in more business activity and to create jobs. In theory this would limit the amount of carbon gases emitted into the atmosphere, although the idea of carbon “trading” implies that emissions are not so much reduced as used to justify a wealth transfer to government coffers as high-emitting companies buy shares from low-emitting companies. It is easy to see why politicians would be drawn to this sort of system. It would not only give them a lot more money to spend but would also provide countless opportunities to do favors for constituents and, more importantly, contributors. It is also easy to see why climate change scientists would tend to favor it as well. After all, it ensures job security.

But here’s the rub. In 2009 and 2010, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House, they could not muster anywhere near enough votes to pass such a system. It takes a lot of chutzpah for politicians like Governor Brown to blame Republicans for not “solving” climate change when Democrats have so recently demonstrated that they are no more eager for that kind of political suicide than the GOP. This is why, when Governor Brown goes on Sunday shows, he talks up Republican denial but never mentions “cap and trade.”

Moreover, climate scientists’ own numbers say that, even if the environmental left’s agenda were passed in toto, it would make a global difference of only a few degrees. When presented with the fact that, even if cap and trade were enacted, it would make at best a negligible difference, the response comes back: well, at least we would being doing something.

Yes, we would be doing something—and that something would be creating distractions that could deter action that might actually be constructive. As the climate changes, society’s efforts will be more useful in adapting to those changes instead of throwing away time and money on the hopeless goal of trying to stop it from happening in the first place. Is it just me or does that sort of thinking not smack of tossing virgins into a crater to appease a volcano?

As I wrote a couple of months ago, the climate change debate is clearly not over and not likely to be—possibly ever. But proponents of the notion of anthropogenic climate change have been doing their best to end that debate—any way they can. The University of Queensland in Australia has gone to court in an attempt to block the release of data used by one of its scientists to arrive at the often mentioned figure of 97 percent scientific climate change consensus in a survey. An analysis by five climate scientists of the survey concluded that only 41 out of 11,944 studies published since 1950 actually blamed human activity for causing global warming. (Most papers did not take a position one way or the other and were thus discounted, which is how the 97 percent figure was arrived at.) Meanwhile, there is a protracted lawsuit initiated by Michael Mann of Penn State against columnist Mark Steyn, The National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute for defamation because the defendants dared to disagree publicly with Mann’s scientific arguments. Dr. Mann’s emails were among those hacked and revealed on a server at the UK’s University of East Anglia in 2009. The appearance given by some of the emails of suppressing dissenting climate change views was dubbed “climategate.” Last week the UK Times reported that a research fellow at the University of Reading complained that a paper he wrote with four other climate experts—and which questioned how sensitive the climate really is to greenhouse gases—had been suppressed because it did not conform to prevailing orthodoxy.

Some skeptics like to say that the climate change movement is like a religion, but I’m not so sure. After all, can you imagine the Pope suing somebody for suggesting that he wasn’t infallible?

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