The perceived impacts of climate change vary based on your politics.

Climate Change: Views from an Environmentalist and a Skeptic

This week, Meryl Gibbs debates Robert Wilkes on the causes, impacts, and responses to Climate Change as part of our Political Pen Pals series. See more Political Pen Pals debates here

Dear Robert,

I’m excited to write to you about Climate Change, something I care deeply about. I understand why some people are skeptical of Climate Change. Climate Science is difficult to understand. There is the fear that we will waste our energy fixing a problem that doesn’t really exist. These fears are relatable. However, evidence, not fear, should drive our decisions. A more concerning scenario is that, in the face of increasing evidence, we will continue to fail to change our behavior to address this very real problem until it is too late. This stunning planet we call home will be rendered unrecognizable, and we will have foregone a more prosperous, equitable and sustainable future because we feared change.

Based on the evidence, I am highly confident that the climate is warming far too rapidly for anything other than anthropogenic causes, including the normal, natural fluctuations in average global temperature that occur. We have known about the effects of greenhouse gases since the 1800s, long before Global Warming was a concern. Lab experiments demonstrated that certain components of the atmosphere, namely water vapor, CO2, and methane, caused heat to be retained. In addition, we know that the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere comes from human sources.

The earth is currently heating at a rate ~10 times faster than any other time over the past 65 million years. The most recent IPCC report states that it is extremely likely that more than 50% of the observed warming since 1951 is anthropogenic. I would be happy to go more in depth on the science of how we know these things if you have questions, as going over the whole body of Climate Science in 1,000 words will not do it justice.

Physicists, Climate Scientists, Aerospace Engineers and Atmospheric scientists across nations and institutions have all independently reached the same conclusion. Other scientifically rigorous institutions such as NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the US Military have indicated that they are implementing strategies to mitigate the impacts of Climate Change. Even Exxon Mobil produced independent internal reports as early as 1977 that were consistent with the scientific community.

How to interpret climate models and predictions is at the root of the debate on Climate Change. There is more uncertainty in the scientific community surrounding exactly how much warming will occur with increased forcing, how increased warming will effect other feedback loops, and on what time frame these changes will occur. Climate models yield projections, but are not final. The scientific method requires that these models are constantly updated and refined, depending on how well their projections end up tracking with reality.

A 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature above pre-industrial levels is widely considered the “point of no return”, at which global warming will begin to accelerate and cause drastic changes. In order to avoid reaching this tipping point, humankind would need to reduce emissions by 40 to 70% (compared to 2010 levels) by 2050, and by effectively 100% by 2100.  Many people think of Climate Change as a linear, gradual progression. However, climate shock events could rapidly increase the rate of change even further, leading to mass extinction events, and rapidly increasing the cost of mitigation and adaptation.

It is difficult to quantify the exact costs that could result from Climate Change. Here are just some of the ways that refusing to reduce emissions can be costly both in terms of dollars and lives: Extreme weather events such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and heatwaves; Illness and disease; Decreased food production; Loss in tourism revenues due to loss of biodiversity; Lost economic productivity; Drought; Sea level rise; Climate refugees (up to 140 Million climate refugees are projected to be displaced by 2050 according to the World Bank). It is not alarmist to discuss these impacts. In fact, humankind has already witnessed historic sea ice loss, rising sea levels, coral bleaching, extinction, and increasingly destructive extreme weather events.

Some have estimated that the cost of addressing Climate Change will add up to about 1% of global GDP, but that the potential costs of inaction are much higher. Furthermore, the costs will keep growing the longer we wait. Delaying action by as little as 20 years will drive costs up to 3-4% of GDP.

Of course, decision makers must consider the costs of acting. Addressing Climate Change could potentially come at a cost to the economy and some jobs, but Climate Change itself poses a larger threat to these metrics. From a cost benefit perspective, reducing CO2 emissions, even if our understanding of Climate Science ended up being completely off base, can come with other significant benefits. Yes, there would be a loss of jobs in the fossil fuel industry. However, there would also be significant jobs created in the renewable energy sector. Furthermore humankind would, as a result, get cleaner air and improved health. The fossil fuel supply is finite, and humankind will eventually need to switch energy sources regardless of the effects of Climate Change. Starting the gradual transition now would be less disruptive to the economy than waiting until the supply is critical.

I hope you and I can both agree that it is a worthy goal to create a world with clean air, sustainable energy, energy security, prosperity and political stability. Therefore, the goals of our policy should be: Reduce GHG emissions by 70% by 2050; Eliminate GHG emissions by 2100; Minimize the costs of reducing emissions; Mitigate the loss of jobs; Increase international collective action. In order to accomplish the above, policy actions should include incentivizing businesses and consumers via a carbon tax and trading, re-training fossil fuel workers for renewable energy jobs, developing international agreements, and investing in research and technology.

Solving global warming requires collective action and collaboration. The Paris Agreement is a step in the right direction, but more concrete, enforceable emissions obligations per country need to be negotiated. We also need to consider how to enable underdeveloped and emerging economies to grow sustainably. Investing in research, technology, and job retraining will be necessary to reduce costs, and to supply renewable energy producers with a skilled workforce. This will also mitigate the effects of job loss in the fossil fuel sector.  Humankind has the necessary information, technology, and grit to solve this problem. It is of utmost importance that we begin utilizing these policy options as soon as possible.

I look forward to reading your response!

Meryl


Dear Meryl,

Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written “first blast” on Climate Change. I don’t agree with your conclusion, but I respect your reasoning. Most of all, I appreciate that you did not say, as the media and the political class has said, that “The science is settled.” Thank you, as well, for letting die the false chestnut that “97% of scientists agree.” They most certainly do not.

The science is not settled. To be science, there must always be doubt and continued search for truth. The Ptolemaic earth-centered system gave way to Newton’s mathematical rationalization of the universe that gave way to Einstein’s relativity. In that tradition, black holes are warping how we think about physics. Given a choice between the Latin expression ignoramus et ignorabimus (We don’t know, we will not know) and the early 20th Century German mathematician David Hilbert’s assertion Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen (We must know, we will know), I tend toward the former.

Let’s apply that posture to Climate Change. Computer climate models are designed and programmed with data and algorithms that reflect the biases and limited knowledge of their creators. Will the sea rise a meter by 2100? Eighty-two years is more than enough time for a temperature reversal and the rebuilding of glaciers. Further, I have serious doubts that a 2-degree change in average earth temperature is a “point of no return” for the planet. I am not sure what that expression even means.

Reasons to be a skeptic, to ignore the Paris Climate Agreement and Kyoto Protocol, and to never, ever, enact a carbon tax. 

Reason #1: The movement is based on shoddy science. We now have access to the email exchanges among climate scientists in their online forum at the University of East Anglia in England. They discuss in the forum what they won’t say in public, because (A) they would be fired; and (B) their grants and jobs in government and academia would vanish if there were no climate crisis.

These candid emails expose the slipshod science of Michael Mann, the obscure paleo climatologist who created the “hockey stick” graph and started the Global Warming movement in earnest. Mann’s work was published in Nature Magazine, a respected science journal with a rigorous peer review process. The editors of Nature thought Mann’s work was so important it bypassed that process and endorsed his findings without it. Mann’s hockey stick was the basis for Al Gore’s frightening 2005 movie, An Inconvenient Truth.

A peer review would have required Mann to share his data with other scientists so they could replicate his findings. To this day, he has refused. One must assume his data is garbage. Mann ignored the Medieval Warming Period and employed “smoothing” techniques to make the data come how he wanted. He used different “smoothing” for different time periods and, as a result, asserted that we are in the warmest period in the last 1,000 years.

Since 2012, Michael Mann has been using the courts to suppress dissent. He claimed in a lawsuit to be a Nobel Prize winner. The Nobel Prize committee denies it. Nevertheless, Mann created a well-funded industry that employs an army of “climate scientists” who otherwise would toil in obscurity. Worse, the IPCC fudged their assessment reports (especially their executive summaries) to support Mann’s claims. The IPCC suppresses dissenting assessments to this day.

Reason #2: We are lucky to be in a warming period. Cooling is the real problem. We are supremely lucky to be living in an interglacial period on a planet that can feed nearly eight billion souls. Conditions on Earth are always changing. For example, Earth’s axis varies between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees on a 40,000-year cycle. Sunspot activity is far more critical to global temperature than greenhouse gasses. The moon is slowly drifting away from the earth, diminishing tide changes. Immense deep ocean currents traverse the oceans on 100- to 1,000-year cycles. What scares me is an ice age. Imagine the chaos.

Reason #3: It’s not about climate, it’s about politics. In 1975 Newsweek asserted that temperatures had been plunging for decades due to human activity. The article includes statistics from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Climatic and Environmental Assessment, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

All-too-familiar trademarks of hysterical journalism are found in phrases such as “drastic decline,” “serious political implications,” and “the evidence has now begun to accumulate so massively that…” Journalists need a crisis. “It’s another beautiful day and nothing terrible has happened” doesn’t glue Americans to their couches. Follow the money.

Nikolay Chernyshevsky wrote in his 1863 book, “What is to Be Done?” that “The worse the better.” Clearly, Al Gore channeled his inner Chernyshevsky in “An Inconvenient Truth.” Much of the movie is wrong or unsubstantiated. Polar bear populations are rising, and the number and severity of storms and natural disasters is decreasing. Lake Chad is drying up for reasons that have nothing to do with rising temperatures.

The reason to scare us is because it gives the state more power over our lives. Climate Change is now divided along political lines. Progressives are alarmed, Conservatives agree there is warming but are not alarmed. A science debate should not hinge on one’s view of the proper role of government, yet it does.

Progressives, through Climate Change, gain enormous power over our lives. They tell us what cars to drive, or whether to own a car at all. They control the sources, and therefore the costs, of energy. Germany, with a strong Green movement, shut down their nuclear power plants and built windmills. A kWh of electricity now cost them $.33, compared to $.10 where I live in Bellevue, WA.

The part of your argument that I disagree with the most is a carbon tax. A tax that provides fire protection or national defense I can understand. I’m buying something I need, and it is better done by government than privately. But a carbon tax is throwing my money away for a feel-good gesture.

When the government taxes me it takes control of my time, more precious to me than money. It’s my life. I am made to work against my will, a slave to government. Progressives believe in larger, more pervasive government and collective solutions according to decisions made by elite philosopher kings (or at least, Harvard graduates). Conservatives believe in limited government and individual freedom and liberty. They avoid radical solutions with vast social and economic consequences. This is the political divide that has swept into its contentious maw the issue of Climate Change.

Reason #4: What is the best way to spend a dollar to help mankind? In 2015, the Copenhagen Consensus Center revised their assessment of what is the best return on a dollar invested in projects to help mankind. For example, a dollar spent to reduce child malnutrition returns $45. By contrast, a dollar spent to hold future temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade returns less than a dollar. The cost is more than the benefit.

While not specifically covered at Copenhagen, if I could choose, I would stop the nonsense on Climate Change and provide clean water, sanitation and electricity to the poorest parts of Africa, India and Asia. The benefits to mankind would be enormous.

Better yet, bringing the third world toward the first world would reduce pollution. There would be less CO2 in the atmosphere. We should direct energy resources (even oil and coal) where they are most critically needed, in the poorest parts of the world. There they struggle just to get enough calories each day. That is a is a real, not an invented crisis.

Finally, educating women is the single best form of population control (educated women have fewer children). Educating women in the third world would provide more social benefit than we have space here to talk about.

Let’s do important things, not a carbon tax.

Robert

You can find Part II of this climate debate here or more Political Pen Pals here

 

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Meryl Gibbs
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Robert Wilkes
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Robert Wilkes is a writer in Bellevue, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. His eclectic career has included military and civilian aviation, engineering, marketing, and communications. He is a frequent contributor to Divided We Fall's Political Pen Pals discussions.

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E.F.Barrett
E.F.Barrett
7 months ago

We should not pollute ‘period’…
Do humans hafta go to the absolute limit before they realize a problem is imminent and take action???
I dont agree with the ‘imminent emergency time’ here, but,I do think our polluting will come to it ‘someday’..
And, I do believe we will need a good scare to fix it…

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