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Not with a Bang but a Whimper

Even the Bush Administration accepted the new report on climate change -- but acted as if it was no big deal. The end of the great argument came very quietly.
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Paris, France -- Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),the convening body of the world's climate scientists, released the report that ends, for all practical purposes, the debate about the urgency of global warming and its human causes. As Scientific American headlined the results, "Climate Change Science Moves from Proof to Prevention".

The IPCC concluded that global temperatures have already begun rising and that there is a better than 90% chance that this rise is caused by human emissions of greenhouse pollutants. "There can be no question that the increases in these greenhouse gases are dominated by human activity," said Dr. Susan Solomon, the co-chair of the working group. It estimated that we will be seeing temperature increases in a range from 2-11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 if we proceed on a business-as-usual path; that is, without changing the way we produce and consume energy. The report also predicted the impacts of emissions to date will cause temperatures and oceans to rise for 1000 years. By cutting emissions of gas promptly, however, we can diminish the size of these impacts.

This is really the end of the debate. The ploy that former White House pollster Frank Luntz suggested to the Administration and the Republican party in 2001 -- to insist that the jury was still out on the science -- no longer has traction. Yes, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe alleged that this was all a hoax, saying the IPCC summary is just a "political document, not a scientific report," but Inhofe has now become a charter member of the Flat Earth Society.

But did the rest of the former skeptics act as if something had changed? No, they simply pretended they had known this all along. Even the Bush Administration accepted the science -- but acted as if it was no big deal. The end of the great argument came very quietly.

So as we move from the issue of proof to the issue of prevention, we need to understand that there never really was a debate over whether increasing greenhouse gasses would warm the world and disrupt the climate. Most of the so-called "global warming skeptics" never really argued the basic science. Here's what the most prominent of them, Dr. Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia, the house climatologist for the CATO Institute, said about the IPCC report: "There is very little in it that is scientifically will report with increasing certitude that humans are responsible for most of the surface warming that began in the mid-1970's. That's been pretty obvious for years....for more than a century it has been known that increasing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will lead to a warming of surface temperatures...."

So the scientist whom the Administration and Big Carbon folks like Exxon-Mobil, trust, and in the case of the oil company, fund, now tells us that the reality of global warming is the inevitable man-made consequence of increased carbon dioxide emissions, that the fact has been known "for more than a century," and that the fact that warming is already happening has been "obvious for years...."

So what have we been arguing about? Is Michaels simply engaging in revisionist history, pretending that he knew all along that global warming was "inevitable" and had already begun? The record shows, as far as I can tell, that Michaels has known all along these truths, and never explicitly denied them. But for years he spent his scientific energy dismissing the scientific consensus without ever debunking the premise upon which that consensus was built.

What Michaels argued, and still argues, is that the pace of global warming will be much slower than most scientists believe; he argues for a warming of about 1.8 degrees by 2100, at the low end of the IPCC projections. That's obviously a legitimate point of view -- but what Michaels, the carbon complex, and the Bush Administration have done is to present this valid debate over how fast global warming is occurring as if it were a debate about its reality, by using headlines like "global warming myths" and "scientific uncertainty" to convey the sense that Inhofe's view that global warming is a hoax might be correct.

What Michaels, and many others at reactionary think tanks like CATO believe, is this: If global warming happens very quickly, and produces major disruptiuons of ecosystems, societies and economies, if it causes millions of deaths in places that turn out to be particularly hard hit, the only cure, the only way to prevent it is government action, on a massive global scale. And, for them, that cure is worse than the disease. Their worldview was summed up at a meeting last summer with a group that included Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They put it up this way: "Economic freedom is fragile, the planet is robust."

So human society should just suck it up and get ready for a chaotic climate. As a working group at CATO has commented, global warming will produce "Winners and losers." Societies need to get themselves ready to be among the winners. (What this might mean is suggested by some work by Michaels in which he concedes that there will more severe heat waves as a result of greenhouse pollution, but says that with air conditioning, fewer people die know because of them -- we have become "better adapted" to temperature extremes. Of course, those without electricity or air conditioning -- the world's poor -- are out of luck.

But the reactionaries understand that this may not be a very attractive message for most people, who think that if there is a major problem which can only be prevented by government action, that's what government is for -- to protect people from such problems. So there is a powerful motivation for those who hate government to emphasize the scientific undertainty about exactly what the costs of global warming will be, who will pay them, or when the bills will come due.

And they also find it convenient to insist that many of the consequences of global warming may not be so bad after all. Michaels refers to the current trends as a "modest warming" which should be "reassuring." Well, the IPCC cites as the results of the current trends: melting of ice sheets, glaciers and snow-pack; more heavy rains and flooding; more droughts and heat waves; stronger and more frequent storms. This is what Michaels finds "reassuring." Because he has to.

Understanding this strategem is important, because it tells us what the next moves from reactionary right and the carbon lobby will be. Now that they can't pretend they don't believe global warming is real, their next ploy will be to suggest that the cost of doing anything will be too high. This is the White House line this week. It would hurt our economy to accept mandatory cuts in our emissions. And the other half of the new storyline from Big Carbon is that we can't do anything anyway, because the rest of the world won't follow. Energy Secretary Bodman said Friday that, "For us to set up something that would limit carbon emissions in this country alone is not a solution to the problem." What Bodman neglected to say is that the Administration has opposed any treaty that would seek to solve the problem globally.

The debate over the reality and imminence of global warming may be over, but the cynical misuse of the evidence to delay effective government prevention clearly is not.

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