The UN’s climate summit in Paris at the end of 2015 concluded with a bang. The world’s governments promised sweeping cuts in carbon emissions. Rich countries promised to help poor ones with $100 billion per year in climate assistance. President Obama quickly declared the agreement “the best chance we have to save the one planet we’ve got.” The consensus quickly jelled that this was a major, historic achievement.
Then came the fizzle: The agreement is non-binding. Secretary of State John Kerry asserted on NBC’s Meet the Press that compliance would be enforced through the “powerful weapon” of public shaming, apparently implying a policy of verbal confrontation toward states that fall short. The Danish scientist Bjørn Lomborg, a prominent critic of the top-down international conference approach to climate change, called the Paris agreement the “costliest in history” if implemented. According to Lomborg, the agreement would “reduce temperatures by 2100 by just 0.05 degrees Celsius (0.09 degrees Fahrenheit)…. This is simply cynical political theater, meant to convince us that our leaders are taking serious action…a phenomenally expensive but almost empty gesture.” NASA scientist Jim Hansen, one of the earliest proponents of the idea that global warming is manmade, slammed the deal as “half-assed and half-baked,” a “fake,” and a “fraud.”
Hansen’s assessment is probably close to the mark—and he and his fellow alarmists have only themselves to blame. While those who flatly deny the possibility of any global warming can be readily brushed aside, the alarmists have been much too quick to dismiss legitimate questions about precisely what the evidence shows. Indeed, they have frequently treated such questions as heresies to be persecuted, adopting an even more virulently anti-scientific mindset than the one they accuse others of.
Meanwhile, on the policy side, the alarmists’ call for worldwide economic controls, including caps on fossil fuels, are largely recycled from previous scientific doomsday fads, such as the oil scarcity scare of the late 1970s. Despite the enormous costs these policies would impose, especially on poor countries, they would do virtually nothing to stop anthropogenic climate change, let alone protect anyone from relentless natural climate change that is one of our planet’s most prominent and inescapable features. They are also distracting attention both from investments that would make society less vulnerable to climate change, and from a more pressing crisis, namely the extinction of a large fraction of the world’s plant and animal species due to widespread modification of natural habitat.
Don’t be fooled by the fanfare in Paris: The climate change movement faces big trouble ahead. Its principal propositions contain two major fallacies that can only become more glaring with time. First, in stark contrast to popular belief and to the public statements of government officials and many scientists, the science on which the dire predictions of manmade climate change is based is nowhere near the level of understanding or certainty that popular discourse commonly ascribes to it. Second, and relatedly, the movement’s embrace of an absolute form of the precautionary principle distorts rational cost-benefit analysis, or throws it out the window altogether.
As the costs of decarbonization start to hit home, and the public demands greater certainty about the benefits to be gained, the public—and particularly those industries that are hardest hit—will invest in scientific research, in the hopes of achieving a more granular cost-benefit analysis. Something similar is happening to proposed listings under the Endangered Species Act—where major economic interests are threatened, they have responded with enormous investments in scientific research in order to show either that the species in question is not in danger, or that it can be protected by measures far short of the often draconian prohibitions imposed pursuant to the Act.
These factors will almost certainly produce a more nuanced and less messianic view of the climate problem, with solutions aimed to maximize “bang for the buck” at the margins, where climate threats are most grave, rather than reordering human society in order to “save” a planet that, in the grand scheme of things, is quite indifferent to the state of the climate at any given time.
All sides of the climate change debate have a huge incentive to generate more and better climate science: the alarmists and their more skeptical colleagues all want to prove their points. As our scientific understanding improves, many of the propositions we hear today will have to be modified, and many will be refuted, as has always happened in the history of science. The scientific community may at times be powerfully resistant to revision of its received wisdoms; it took an entire generation for medical professionals to accept the germ theory of disease, despite the fact that the evidence in its favor generated by Pasteur and Koch was clear from the start. But better science wins out in the end.