April 7, 2010

Green Emperors Must Stand in Line


Waster Russel Mead

Sometimes, you don’t have to be an emperor to have no clothes. Just being the Prince of Wales can be enough. After all, in May of 2008 Prince Charles warned the world that we had only eighteen months left to save the planet from spiraling climate disasters. Twenty-three months later we are struggling to cope with the resulting chaos and devastation; fortunately the Prince has given us an extension. On March 7 of 2009 he announced that we have 100 months to save the world. There are 87 months still left — at least by the current count. And who but an evil or foolish climate denier can disagree? After all, the Prince speaks with the Authority of Science — and his tailors are the best and his garments are always very grand.

As the dust settles from the climate upheavals of the last few months — the email scandal, the collapse of the Copenhagen summit, the revelations about the flaws in the IPCC methods and reports — the overall pattern looks more and more clear.

First, there’s significant evidence that something unusual is happening to the world’s climate, and a very strong case exists that it is related to human activity.

Second, some important questions remain. Climate science is a young discipline, and the earth’s climate system is extremely complex. Gathering data, interpreting data, developing and testing models, and making predictions all present non-trivial problems. It is likely that as time goes by and our knowledge and methods improve, many of today’s views on climate will be modified, some significantly. It is impossible to predict from our current knowledge base whether the likely revisions will point to increased risks, decreased risks, or a complex mix of increased and decreased risks. It is possible but by no means certain that the changes in our understanding of climate dynamics will lead to improved ideas about how to reduce the impact of human activity on the world’s climate.

This far, much to the annoyance of some readers, my views are more or less compatible with those of mainstream climate scientists and on these underlying facts of the case I’m pretty close (perhaps a bit more cautious) than the article published in a recent issue of the Economist.

Third, the climate change movement is losing ground; in the English speaking world, in China and India, even in Germany, the political climate is turning more hostile.More...
As someone who has always been less skeptical about the science of climate change than about the politics of the issue, I’m not surprised. I’m not even unhappy; the headline policy proposals that the ‘climate change community’ has generated are by and large unrealistic and ill-advised. Concern about the impact of human activity on the environment makes sense; the political program of the climate lobby does not. It is too global and too grandiose ever to be implemented, and the kind of treaties that the movement has sought cannot be delivered by the international system that now exists.

At the national level, the climate lobby is reeling from a series of setbacks. French President Sarkozy has dropped his support for what would have been Europe’s first carbon tax after concluding that the program was contributing to his steep decline in the polls. Australia’s government was handed an embarrassing defeat over a climate change bill; an opposition leader who sided with the government lost his job when his party revolted. In the United States, even the most optimistic proponents of climate change action have drastically scaled back their dreams; the current Senate bill on cap and trade looks more like a subsidy program for energy companies than like a serious effort to reduce America’s carbon use. Polls in the United States are even less encouraging.

As China and India sense that the global balance of power is changing in their favor and also that the climate lobby has lost political momentum in the West, they are looking less likely to take serious action. And generally, the ongoing financial and economic problems in the world have driven climate change far down the list of global priorities — and made it harder for the climate lobby to raise money from private foundations and guilty rich people.

A poll by the German magazine Der Spiegel found that the percentage of Germans “worried” about the effects of climate change has fallen from 58 percent to 42 percent; German government officials are described as “horrified” by the lack of professionalism at the IPCC and German scientists are demanding the resignation of Rajendra Pachauri.

Characteristically the climate lobby is blaming its troubles on the moral imperfections of other people: short-sighted ordinary people too stupid to comprehend the danger, evil climate “deniers” confusing the peasants with misleading charts, energy producers ready to wreck Planet Earth if that will increase the value of their stock options, and cowardly politicians who won’t walk the plank for the most important issue in the history of mankind. Another, less arrogant and obnoxious way to say the same thing is to say that the climate lobby has been unable to develop a strategy that could work in the world we happen to inhabit.

The current New Yorker offers a classic example of clueless hand wringing: “Why, with global warming, is it always one step forward, two, maybe three steps back?” asks Elizabeth Kolbert, citing a number of the cascading political disasters that have overtaken the movement.
Until the climate change movement understands the flaws in its own strategy, it will continue to experience political setbacks even as it repairs its scientific foundations.

There is nothing surprising about the green crack-up. The changes the climate change movement sought were so dramatic, so complex and so expensive, and required so much coordination in so many different countries, that the climate lobby could only hope to prevail by creating an aura of mass panic about global warming. In my first post about ‘climategate’, I wrote that climate scientists, like Dean Acheson at the start of the Cold War, felt they needed to be ‘clearer than truth’ to sell the public on the dangers they saw. It was this that led the movement and its most visible leaders to stress high profile predictions (like the infamous glacier story) that very publicly blew up in their faces.

This was devastating to the movement; its narrative had been that “We are the scientists, the voices of reason; our critics are ignorant cranks.” Thus the ineffable Rajendra Pachauri, utterly incompetent to manage a high profile global scientific institution in its hour of crisis but serenely convinced of his superior wisdom and virtue, tore himself away from his erotic novel writing to dismiss people who dared question his beloved glacier prediction as “voodoo scientists”.

The critics’ narrative was simpler: “The emperor has no clothes.” Climategate and the IPCC meltdown powerfully reinforced the critical narrative. The pompous, wiser-than-thou establishment had been caught with its pants down. The fact that the mainstream media were slow to appreciate the significance of these developments and were slow to grasp how much things had changed only served to strengthen the impression that the critics were right. The mainstream media looked like the courtiers admiring the emperor’s fine new garments while everyone else could plainly see the skinny imperial knees and the saggy royal rear end. It was a big political win for Matt Drudge, Fox News and all the other kids in the crowd shouting “But he’s not wearing anything at all!”

The underlying problem is strategic, not merely one of PR. It turns out that the actual science, as strong as it is, won’t scare enough of the people enough of the time to enact the sweeping changes the climate lobby wants. That may change over time as evidence accumulates, but the climate movement’s plan for a Big Global Fix probably can’t be adopted no matter what the science says. In the meantime the effort to stampede the herd into the corral by hyping the evidence has not only collapsed; it has given skeptics a strategic boost. Future pronouncements by future green poo-bahs will be met with more skepticism and more cynicism than ever before. To the extent that the green lobby is fighting an entrenched conspiracy of rich oil companies, it has just handed its enemies a powerful set of weapons.

But there’s another little point to consider. I hate to bring this up, but when it comes to the possibly disastrous problems that humanity has so far failed to solve, climate change is neither the most immediate or the most deadly. We live with many unsolved problems. Some are even scarier than global warming — like nuclear proliferation, the development of biological weapons of mass destruction, and the rising volatility of the international financial system. It has been crystal clear for more than a century that modern technology makes war so overwhelmingly destructive that it should no longer be allowed; yet the world is no closer to the elimination of war than it was in 1910. Any or all of these may well do us in before Antarctic ice melt drives tsunamis up the Hudson or climate change creates super-cyclones that empty Florida of everything except walking catfish and Burmese pythons.

Given the many dangers humanity faces, and the limited economic and political resources available to counter them, it’s not as clear as Prince Charles thinks that climate change needs to be the number one issue we address in the next 18 or 87 or however many months he thinks we have left. The United States, for example, has only a limited amount of political capital with China and India. Should we put all of our diplomatic chips on the table to stop global warming, or should we prioritize getting their help in strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, arms control, or local issues — like getting India to be more forthcoming in its negotiations with Pakistan, lessening the dangers of both proliferation and nuclear war? Can an American administration survive if the country believes that it has chosen to ignore China’s trade surplus with the United States in order to prioritize global warming? If President Obama is succeeded by a Republican, it’s unlikely that the US commitment to fighting climate change would grow. How much of his political capital should the President spend on global warming now — as opposing to conserving his popularity and his political majority for worries like re-election and support for his disarmament policies?

“Science” provides no answer to questions like these; the climate change movement has not really thought them through.

I suspect that over time the list of issues that are at least as grave as climate change and quite possibly more urgent will grow. The global economy appears headed into a turbulent era; how much of our political capital should be spent on working with China to avoid devastating world depressions that could get us into big trouble (like war) long before climate change can really hit us? The weaponization of biology as our ability to create organisms and make new diseases explodes is likely to generate a host of arms control issues — and the proliferation of biological WMDs is far easier to arrange and harder to stop than the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Terrorists in particular are likely to find ‘loose germs’ much easier to get hold of or even create than ‘loose nukes’.

In some ways, the greens are like a doctor telling a 95 year old man with heart trouble that he has a slow growing form of prostate cancer that is likely to kill him in 15 years. He doesn’t have to be a ‘cancer denier’ to think that this isn’t the issue he needs to focus on right now.

Prince Charles, Rajendra Pachauri and all the other naked green emperors need to get in line. The human condition in the twenty-first century is far graver and more complex than they seem to understand. They are not the only people with an urgent agenda; climate change is neither the only nor the most imminent threat to civilized life. Humanity needs leaders who can face its problems whole, think about how to address them in context, and above all who can act calmly and deliberately — neither being swept away by every passing panic (remember swine flu) nor taking refuge in denial.

Striking that balance will be hard, but as I’ve written before on this blog, the twenty first century is likely to prove the most challenging era humanity has ever known. To play its not inconsiderable part in the the complicated business of getting humanity through this century in reasonably good shape, the environmental movement needs stronger leadership than, so far, has come to the fore. Not even Prince Charles, Rajendra Pachauri and Al Gore seem to be up to the job.

But you’ve got to admire the threads.

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