Rethinking the Climate Change Debate

Time for a pragmatic approach to the greenhouse gas challenge
Illustration by 731

The world’s failure to take meaningful action on climate change may one day be seen as the gravest mistake of our time. How to account for this dereliction? Governments won’t succeed in this endeavor until they start risking political capital on the cause and, equally important, rethinking their arguments. Climate change is neither an inevitable cataclysm nor a scientific hoax. It is a relatively straightforward but profound risk against which the world must insure itself.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just published the third of three working-group reports on where the science of climate change stands, on the effects that the world can expect if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, and on the options for reducing those risks. Later this year it will issue a grand Synthesis Report gathering all these pieces together. These thousands of pages add to the tens of thousands already published in previous IPCC exercises, and the message is essentially the same: The world needs to act. Despite the ambitions of the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow.

This is in part because the world’s dependence on fossil fuels isn’t easy to dislodge. The economic burden of prompt mitigation happens here and now; the main economic benefits are decades away (other benefits, such as cleaner air, will come sooner). That’s a tough case to make in a democracy. Meanwhile, it’s clear that human behavior is changing the climate, but just how quickly, and with what exact consequences, is harder to say. The precise effects on weather, sea levels, incidence of disease and drought, species diversity, ocean acidification, and so forth—none of this is known with certainty.

Politicians the world over have largely ducked the responsibility, too often preferring grandiose speeches and hollow international initiatives to cost-effective policies that stand a chance of working—such as putting a tax on carbon. The advantage of a carbon tax is that it offers a market-based approach to setting priorities. But the broader point is that taking climate change seriously doesn’t mandate any and every proposal for reducing emissions. Some are too expensive to make sense (retrofitting old machines and buildings, for instance, can cost much more than making new ones energy-efficient), and there’s no shame in saying so. Other ideas are too promising to ignore (nuclear power, carbon-capture technologies, geoengineering), and there’s no shame in saying that, either. Adapting to higher temperatures, as well as trying to limit the increase, should also be part of the discussion—an idea that the IPCC is belatedly coming around to.

In the U.S. and around the world, prominent politicians should make clear that the debate over climate change need not demand the unconditional surrender of competing worldviews. It’s simply a discussion about the steps necessary to manage risk.

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