Wasted Energy

The Problem Of Climate-change Politics

In the 1950s, the ignorant anti-Communism of Joe McCarthy energized the fellow-traveling Left, and nearly destroyed an emerging liberal anti-Communist consensus. In much the same way, the noisy right-wing assault on the current climate-change consensus is giving a free intellectual pass to the climate movement’s policy mandarins. If Fox’s Bill O’Reilly is against it, what’s not to like? In fact, quite a lot.

The evidence for a consistent recent warming trend and a rapid buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide is now virtually irrefutable. Because carbon-based gasses are likely to have a “greenhouse effect,” it is perfectly plausible that a reduction in human carbon emissions could halt or even reverse the warming trend.

 But plausibility is not the same as certainty. The great physicist Freeman Dyson, a master of modeling complex physical systems, has high praise for the climate modelers’ work on oceans and the atmosphere, but points out the huge swaths of climate machinery that the models omit. More important, climate change is a lousy framework for making policy.

America’s most pressing geopolitical imperative is to reduce the consumption of oil. Nearly all current sources of oil are in the hands of states that are either unstable, like Nigeria, or inimical to the United States. Mideast oil money finances the world’s terrorist networks and Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. Oil money has restored Russia’s czarist strut and enables the buffooneries of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. We would never have spent trillions of dollars and five thousand young American lives in Middle Eastern wars if the region had no oil.

In the near term, the most practical large-scale substitutes for conventional oil are probably coal, natural gas, or shale oil. But whatever they are, engineering some such shift should be a top American priority whether or not it results in higher per-unit carbon emissions. (Because any major fuel-source shift would necessarily increase prices, the forced conservation is also likely to reduce emissions, but that’s not certain.)

Given the current disarray in Congress, the chance of forcing a major energy regime-change is vanishingly small, and the investment requirements are huge. But the focus on carbon dioxide rather than oil distorts critical national interests, and imposes gratuitous obstacles to meaningful action.

Another hot-button issue for the global-warming lobby is the looming shortage of water. No one who’s seen, say, the desertification of China can argue with that. Conceivably, within a few decades a third of the world’s population may not have assured access to clean, fresh water.

But we know how to secure water supplies. Build efficient, leak-free water distribution, disposal, and recycling systems. End wasteful irrigation practices. Convert to water-conserving genetically modified plants. Price water fairly. (Arid central California is a leading global rice exporter, because its farmers get their water free.) Even if global warming somehow worsens water shortages, focusing on carbon emissions has to be among the most indirect and inefficient ways to solve the problem.

It is hubris to claim that a model can reliably forecast single-digit temperature variations fifty or even thirty years from now. A national economy is a far simpler machine than a planet’s ventilation system, and we’ve just absorbed bitter lessons about how wrong economic models can be.

A recent Smithsonian publication documents the near-disappearance of Greenland’s glaciers five to nine thousand years ago and their recovery to a recent maximum in the “Little Ice Age” of 1500–1850. The older glacier/temperature correlations are consistent with the ones we are seeing now, but the mechanisms are unknown. It might have been ocean currents or solar cycles, but it wasn’t carbon dioxide. The current correlation between rising CO2 and warming is highly suggestive, but hardly conclusive. On top of that, the emissions-reduction focus makes the problematic assumption that the system will run backward, although tipping-point phenomena frequently don’t.

Grand crusades like the climate-change movement are catnip for the liberal Left, exposing its fatal weakness for politics-as-display. December’s Copenhagen conference was pure policy circus, and doomed to failure—but the kind of failure perversely pleasurable for policy elites, for it confirms the hopeless gulf between them and the yahoos.

The pressing imperatives on energy and water should be addressed straight up on their own terms. We should keep a respectful eye on climate science, and when we can make otherwise sensible energy and water policies climate-friendly at reasonable expense, we should do so. But it is nuts to make our entire resource-management agenda hostage to distant possibilities that rest on still-fragile foundations.

Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

Charles R. Morris’s most recent book is The Rabble of Dead Money, a history of the Great Depression (PublicAffairs).

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Economic Injustice for Most

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