The start of a year, always a time of forecasts—with reference to which, see p. 26—can be the occasion for wishes, as well. Here's one: that popular debate about global warming starts to address real issues.
In the Dec. 23 New York Times, eminent columnist Thomas L. Friedman demonstrated everything wrong about the global-warming conversation in a column entitled "Send in the Clowns," in which he offered advice to the political right from somewhere closer to the other end of the ideological spectrum. "If Republicans continue to be led around by, and live in fear of, a base that denies global warming after Hurricane Sandy and refuses to ban assault weapons after Sandy Hook—a base that would rather see every American's taxes rise rather than increase taxes on millionaires—the party has no future," he wrote.
In this broad smear, the scientific mystery of global warming shrinks into a single, simple wrinkle on the craggy face of political caricature. The implication is that anyone who "denies global warming" is, like everyone not aglow with liberal wisdom on other subjects, simply wrong-headed.
Yet who, precisely, "denies global warming," a natural phenomenon in the absence of which humans could not exist? And how, exactly, does a single weather event relate to climate phenomena?
To the superior intellects who take their political cues from the New York Times, questions such as these are trivial. They know what Friedman means: Anyone reluctant to make economic sacrifice to possibly unfounded concern surrenders the privilege of being taken seriously in polite company. Therefore, Republicans who wonder aloud about the efficacy of costly remedies, let alone the need for them—the phrase "deny global warming," decoded—deprive their party of legitimacy.
This is not argumentation. This is snobbery.
Case suffersThe case for costly precaution against global warming has, in fact, suffered lately. It has suffered politically, economically, and scientifically.
The political case began to fray when well-placed university researchers in the UK and at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were found to have subordinated science to politics in many instances. The mischief included, for example, publication in an important IPCC report of unfounded predictions about the melting of Himalayan glaciers—a politically incendiary error that the IPCC brushed off as minor oversight. More recently, British Broadcasting Corp., a persistent and politically potent source of dire warming forecasts, was found to have decided not to report contrary views on the advice of environmental activists.
The fear-driven political agenda sustained these blows to its credibility while global economic malaise forced attention to cost, providing a context most unpromising for proposals to displace fossil energy with much more-expensive alternatives.
And then there's the problem—for activists—of science. Satellite temperature measurements over the last decade or so haven't tracked predictions by computer models the IPCC uses to predict dangerous warming. According to some interpretations, average global temperature has quit rising.
Observation vs. predictionTo the extent discrepancies exist between observation and prediction, questions gain strength about modeling assumptions concerning the sensitivity of measured temperature to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases. Scientists disagree over the extent of that discrepancy and what it means. Their work in this still-murky area of climate science is important.
But the question that should be central to policy-making remains open: Do humans, with the emissions of GHGs for which they're responsible, contribute so much to warming that by cutting emissions they can meaningfully influence global average temperature? The answer, because warming has many causes and the climate has offsetting mechanisms not yet well understood, might be no.
To point this out is not churlish. And reluctance to impose heavy cost on the mere chance that worst-case scenarios, generated by systems shown to have predictive lapses, might come true is not evidence of political illegitimacy.
For more than 30 years, the activists of global-warming politics have predicted doom and insisted on immediate precaution, whatever the cost. They've answered reasonable questions about their urgent agenda by mischaracterizing questions and disparaging questioners. And they've been caught in multiple instances of propagandist excess.
This would be a good year for a conversation about global warming not overheated by zealotry, finally, to begin.