Climate Change Skeptics “Win” as Earth Warms

Amid all the talk about scandals in Washington, the most important news story of the year has been nearly overlooked.

As Justin Gillis of The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, the level of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere reached “the long-feared milestone” of 400 parts per million. (It was at 275 parts per million before the industrial age began.) Wrote Gillis:

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration…

Why have we failed? Climate change skeptics, whose position has as much validity as evolution deniers, have persuaded the public there is real disagreement in the scientific community on this issue.

And the public, preoccupied with economic worries, has been happy to be fooled by  this disinformation campaign promoted—it must be said–by conservatives of all stripes and the fossil fuel industry.

Earth's atmosphere from space. Photo: Flickr/Ai Austin.

Earth’s atmosphere from space. Photo: Flickr/Ai Austin.

The brilliant economics columnist Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently declared that “climate sceptics have won,” despite overwhelming evidence:

An analysis of abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed scientific papers, published between 1991 and 2011 and written by 29,083 authors, concludes that 98.4 per cent of authors who took a position endorsed man-made (anthropogenic) global warming…Today, 30 per cent of CO2 in the atmosphere is directly due to humanity.

What’s behind the recent rise? “Catch-up growth” particularly as China has brought hundreds of millions of people into the middle class:

As the emerging countries develop, emissions per person will tend to rise towards levels in high-income countries, raising the global average. This is why global emissions per person rose by 16 percent between 2000 and 2009, which was a period of fast growth in emerging economies.

In other words, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and Indonesians all aspire to the middle class comforts of the U.S. and Europe. But if they all achieve that, the planet is, well, cooked.

Advanced countries, especially the U.S., can’t tell the rest of the world that they should live with less while we are the biggest carbon users per capita by far. But Wolf is rightly concerned that the “25-40 percent cut in emissions of high-income countries by 2020” needed to keep CO2 levels below even 450 parts per million “will not happen.”

The reasons are mainly political. Here’s why so many conservatives simply can’t accept climate change:

To admit that a free economy generates a vast global external cost is to admit that the large-scale government regulation so often proposed by hated environmentalists is justified..It is far easier to deny the relevance of the science.

And then there is the public itself, which views a low-carbon economy as “one of universal privation” and which “will not do something on this scale because they care about others, even including their own more remote descendants.”

And yet the results of climate change could be catastrophic, as I wrote last July.

A sobering study in the journal Science posited an irreversible “state shift” in the planet’s ecosystem that could have “severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including…fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water,” the scientists wrote, all “within just a few generations.”

If that happens, you can chalk it up to human beings’ “short-termism” and our bottomless capacity for denial. And conservatives will have been responsible for aiding and abetting the most radical change of all.



2 Responses to Climate Change Skeptics “Win” as Earth Warms

  1. John Wright May 31, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    As Guy McPherson ( of the University of Arizona suggests, “Nature bats last.”

    He believes a collapsing economy might salvage the living planet, which if true is completely opposite to the “grow the economic pie” policies of all(?) the nations of the world.

    This is not a message that is palatable to many, even to those that are sympathetic to the effects of climate change and is counter to the economic growth and population growth agenda of the last 400 years.

    And no USA politician who values their career would be bold enough to channel this message.

    Perhaps some non-carbon dioxide energy producing technology such as hydrogen fusion will prove practical, but that has been researched for more than 60 years as scientists attempt to bottle up the sun..

    Evidence of how little importance is given to climate change is shown in the agenda for Tom Friedman’s “The Next New World” global forum that will occur June 20 in San Francisco.

    In the one day seminar that lasts from 9:30AM to 7:30PM, there is one session from 2 to 2:30 titled “Grand Strategy for a Sustainable Future” that I see related to climate change.

    But, I believe one must not mistake Tom Friedman for someone who will “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

    • HowardRGold June 1, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

      Good points, John, if a bit depressing. The underlying problem here is that human beings so dominate the planet that we view our own interests as paramount and everything else a distant second, so climate change will never be a priority until it\’s too late.

      But Tom Friedman has written a lot about climate change. Here\’ one example:

      Thanks for your comments,

Leave a Reply