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.
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 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 planet is warming far too rapidly for the cause to be anything other than anthropogenic (taking into account the fluctuations in average global temperature that naturally occur). We have known about the effects of greenhouse gasses since the 19th century, long before global warming was a concern. Lab experiments demonstrated that certain components of the atmosphere, namely water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane, trap heat. In addition, we know that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from human sources.
The earth is currently heating approximately 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that it is extremely likely that more than 50% of the observed warming since 1951 is anthropogenic.
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 U.S. 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 findings of the scientific community.
There are legitimate debates to be had on the topic of climate change; however, they are related more to how to interpret climate models and predictions than to whether or not it exists. There is indeed uncertainty in the scientific community surrounding exactly how much warming will occur with increased forcing, how increased warming will affect 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 two 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 of failing to act on the climate crisis. Here are just some of the costly scenarios, both in terms of dollars in lives, that would occur if we do not reduce emissions: extreme weather events such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and heatwaves; illness and disease; food insecurity; loss in tourism revenues; lost economic productivity; drought; sea level rise; and major waves of human displacement (up to 140 million people are projected to be displaced by climate-related disasters by 2050, according to the World Bank). It is not alarmist to discuss these impacts. In fact, we have already witnessed historic sea ice loss, rising sea levels, coral bleaching, extinction, and increasingly destructive and extreme weather events.
While the cost of addressing climate change will add up to about 1% of global GDP, according to some estimates, the cost of inaction would be much higher. Furthermore, the costs will keep growing the longer we wait to take action. Delaying action by as little as 20 years will drive costs up to 3-4% of GDP.
Of course, legislators must consider the costs of acting. Addressing climate change could potentially come at a cost to the economy, but climate change itself poses a larger threat to these metrics. From a cost-benefit perspective, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, even if our understanding of climate science ends 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 job creation in the renewable energy sector. Humankind would also, as a result, gain cleaner air and improved health. Furthermore, the fossil fuel supply is finite, and we would eventually need to switch energy sources anyway, 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 critically low.
I hope you and I can both agree that it is a worthy goal to create a world with clean air, energy security, and overall prosperity and stability. With this in mind, the goals of our environmental policy should be: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2050; eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2100; minimizing the costs of reducing emissions; mitigating the loss of jobs; and mobilizing international collective action. In order to accomplish the above, policies should, among other things, incentivize businesses and consumers via a carbon tax and trading, train fossil fuel industry workers for renewable energy jobs, bolster and develop international agreements, and invest 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 and enforceable emissions obligations 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 training will be necessary to reduce costs and to supply renewable energy producers with a skilled workforce. This will also mitigate the effects of job losses 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!
Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written essay 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.
One can argue that science is never 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, which in turn gave way to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In that tradition, black holes are warping how we think about physics — in other words, our understanding of the world is always changing as we gain new information and more sophisticated modes of thinking. Given a choice between the Latin expression Ignoramus et ignorabimus — We do not know and we will not know — and the German assertion Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen — We must know, we will know — I tend toward the former.
Let us 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. As such, we should always be inquisitive. There is reason to question popular claims and sentiments regarding climate change. I have outlined several below:
Reason #1: Not all data is perfect. For instance, we now have access to email exchanges among climate scientists at the University of East Anglia. In this online forum, these scientists discussed topics they did not disclose publicly, such as alleged misconduct within their research center. This misconduct potentially could negate the conclusions of a 2007 report by IPCC, which relied in part on data from the University of East Anglia.
Reason #2: We are relatively lucky to be in a warming period. One could argue that cooling would be far more detrimental. From this perspective, we are lucky to be living in an interglacial period on a planet that can feed nearly eight billion souls. Sunspot activity is critical to global temperatures. As conditions on Earth are always changing, alternatives to what we are seeing now — like an ice age — could be far more catastrophic.
Reason #3: It’s not about climate, it’s about money and politics. In 1975 Newsweek asserted that temperatures had been plunging for decades due to human activity. All too familiar trademarks of sensationalized journalism can be found in their word choices, such as “drastic decline,” “serious political implications,” and “the evidence has now begun to accumulate so massively that…” It’s no secret to Democrats and Republicans alike that the media thrives on crises, whether real or manufactured. “It’s another beautiful day and nothing terrible has happened” doesn’t quite glue Americans to their couches.
The media, however, is not the only group that stands to gain from pushing the narrative of climate catastrophe. Politicians, too, can use this topic to sow fear and gain undue influence over our lives. For instance, in Germany, where there is a strong Green Party, the largest individual source of electricity is wind power. A kWh of electricity now costs Germans $0.32, compared to $0.12 where I live in Bellevue, WA.
This issue of climate change is now divided along political lines. Progressives are alarmed, while 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 believe in larger, more pervasive government and collective solutions according to decisions made by the elite. In contrast, conservatives believe in limited government and individual freedom and liberty, and avoid radical solutions with vast social and economic consequences. It is this type of political thinking that has swept into its contentious maw the issue of climate change.
For the reasons outlined above, I most disagree with your carbon tax proposal. A tax that provides fire protection or national defense, I can understand — I am of the opinion that essential services are better handled by the government than the private sector. 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.
Reason #4: What is the best way to spend a dollar to help mankind? In 2015, the Copenhagen Consensus Center revised their assessment of the dollar-value returns on various humanitarian investments. For example, a dollar spent to reduce child malnutrition returns $45. While not specifically covered at Copenhagen, one could argue providing clean water, sanitation and electricity to the poorest parts of the world would be far more beneficial than attempting to change temperatures. Similarly, we should direct energy resources (even oil and coal) where they are most critically needed, to places where people struggle just to get enough calories each day.
Likewise, investing in education across the world would be immensely consequential for humankind. Educating women in the developing world alone would not only help slow population growth, it would exponentially raise productivity and quality of life for present and future generations. The benefits of providing resources to millions of people who otherwise would not be able to reach their full potential would be enormous.
Let’s do important things, not a carbon tax.
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