(photo credit: Bloomberg)
My son recently asked me an interesting question: If global warming is preeminently an empirical issue, why do positions on the magnitude of the threat hew so closely to ideology? Those on the Left tend toward global warming alarmism; those on the Right tend to be far more skeptical.
For those on the Left the answer is easy: The doubters are either congenital idiots, hostile to science, or have sold their souls to Big Business. For the skeptics, the key lies in the Left's desire for rule and to impose its social vision by any means possible.
Those on the Left are convinced that they are more intelligent and more moral, and those twin conceits cause them to view democracy - which gives equal weight to the votes of the unintelligent and unenlightened - as basically irrational. (For a similar reason, they tend to view markets, which treat the decisions of all consumers equally, as irrational compared to central economic planning by "experts.") From Karl Marx to Tommy Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, the Left has busied itself explaining the "false consciousness" of the masses, who consistently fail to recognize their own best interests.
That unease with democracy is reflected in a preference for rules that negate the power of the "stupid party" - presumed to be a majority - in representative democracies. Expansive judicial power to determine basic societal norms on issues like abortion and single-sex marriage is a more benign expression of that preference; Pol Pot's reeducation camps a less benign one. One of the favorite causes of the original Progressives (the Left's preferred name for itself today) was eugenics - the most radical solution to the problem of too many stupid people.
Crises, whether real or imagined, are another device for transferring power to societal wise men. That is what White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel meant when he said that no crisis should ever be allowed to go to waste. Thus the current world economic crash - which is quite real - has been used to press for a dramatic transformation of the American economic system to a European welfare state model, even though those economies were sclerotic before the crash and are doing even worse than America's today. But at least they are more centrally controlled.
SO IT IS with the hysterical and unfounded scenarios of ocean levels rising precipitously and washing away coastal cities all around the world propounded by Al Gore. (When George Stephanopoulos pointed out to Gore that no oceanologist or climatologist agrees with his projections, Gore, who is wont to claim that there is no scientific debate on the threat of global warming, replied, "[Scientists] don't know... They just don't know.")
David Schoenbrod, a former lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, sums up the matter well: "The distinction between a problem and a catastrophe is critical to the psychology of the environmental movement. A problem presents us with choices about its priority in relation to other problems. A looming catastrophe impels us to do whatever the 'experts' tell us we must do to avert it."
In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama promised to return "science to its rightful place" - i.e., as the ultimate arbiter of contested issues, unfettered by moral concerns such as those expressed by the "stupid" George W. Bush over the harvesting of embryonic stem cells. At the height of the embryonic stem cell debate, hysterical claims were made that any limitations on federally-supported research would deny Christopher Reeve the ability to walk again. Then - inconveniently for proponents - scientists in Japan and America discovered that they could create stem cells no different than those harvested from human embryos.
Many scientists believe that science alone can determine all policy and ethical issues. Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, declares "the issue of global warming is... a scientific issue. It's not a political one." Such claims tend to both grossly exaggerate the degree of scientific unanimity and ignore the policy choices that remain.
LIKE 99 PERCENT of those who weigh in on the global warming debate, I'm not a scientist. But I smell a rat when told that the debate is over. World temperatures have always been in a state of flux. That itself makes it ridiculous to speak of an optimal temperature. In a 2003 survey of climate scientists by Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, four times as many agreed as disagreed with the proposition that global warming might bring substantial benefits.
Moreover, the mechanisms for climate change are poorly understood and involve a multitude of factors, including volcanic activity and sunspots. Even over the past century, during which there has been an overall temperature increase of about one degree Fahrenheit, the rise in temperatures has not paralleled increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. Four of the hottest recorded years ever were in the 1930s; from 1940 to the early '70s temperatures decreased, leading to hysteria about the coming ice age (about which there was also said to be scientific consensus), and have remained flat since 1998. Two University of Wisconsin researchers recently concluded that global warming has entered a decades-long remission.
Mars, Jupiter and Pluto are currently experiencing warming, presumably without any contribution of human-produced fluorocarbons. Finally, the theoretical computer models upon which the hysterical predictions are based have consistently failed to find support in observational evidence.
The late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky argued that global warming hysteria feeds a particular environmentalist dream of "an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less and sharing a lower level of resources more equally." Note that President Obama never speaks about expanded use of nuclear energy as an antidote to fossil fuels, even though nuclear energy is the cheapest, cleanest and most plentiful. But nuclear energy is not part of the small-is-beautiful mantra. That vision, in which Mother Nature prior to the advent of man is the ideal, flies directly in the face of the biblical account of man as the height of creation, who is commanded to fill the world and conquer it.
Dutch statistician and former Greenpeace activist Bjorn Lomborg argued in The Skeptical Environmentalist that the vast regulatory apparatus required by the Kyoto Accords would cost $150 billion annually in reduced economic activity, while having only an infinitesimal impact on world temperatures. For the amount saved in one year by ignoring Kyoto, he concluded, we could eliminate forever the unsanitary drinking water that kills two million annually.
That message was not sufficiently in tune with the anti-human, anti-growth, pro-regulatory bias of the environmental movement. Science and Scientific American initially refused to print Lomborg's response to critiques, and the latter threatened legal action if he continued to post their critique with his devastating rebuttal. Such attempts to squelch scientific debate themselves prove that there is no scientific consensus.
The real answer to my son lies in the biblical account of the Tower of Babel. Then too, men infatuated with their own intelligence set out to do battle with God and impose their own moral vision on the entire world, with unhappy results.