Cli­mate change hys­te­ria won’t solve our cli­mate problems

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - MONA CHAREN @monacharenEPPC Mona Charen is a se­nior fel­low at the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter.

NBC’s Katy Tur, re­spond­ing to an ar­ti­cle in the New Yorker about cli­mate, looked into the cam­era and asked, “How point­less is my life? And how point­less are the de­ci­sions that I make on a day-to-day ba­sis when we are not fo­cused on cli­mate change ev­ery day, when it’s not lead­ing ev­ery one of our news­casts?”

It’s a safe bet that not only will cli­mate change not lead all news­casts, it will not even lead Tur’s very of­ten. And the rea­son is not any of those of­ten prof­fered for fail­ure to act in ways ac­tivists prefer. It won’t be that she is a cli­mate change de­nier. It won’t be that she was bought off by the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try. And it won’t be that she doesn’t care.

It will not lead be­cause her pro­gram is a busi­ness, and if she be­gins her news­cast ev­ery day with the same story, peo­ple will tire of it pretty quickly and soon she’ll be out of a job.

Still, I don’t doubt Tur’s sin­cer­ity. Both the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion and the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion have re­ported an in­crease in what is be­ing dubbed “cli­mate anx­i­ety.” Fear of catas­tro­phe is ap­par­ently wide­spread. Kids re­turn from school fear­ful that they won’t live to adult­hood. The Na­tional Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil of­fers tips on “ban­ish­ing the Cli­mate Change Blues.”

Al Gore may have many fine traits, but his ef­fort to sow panic about cli­mate with “An In­con­ve­nient Truth” (2006) was a tremen­dous dis­ser­vice to rea­son­able pol­icy mak­ing and to the very cause he was pro­mot­ing. It was not based on sound sci­ence, and when its wilder pre­dic­tions proved false (“within a decade, there will be no more snows on Kil­i­man­jaro”), some con­cluded that the whole is­sue was fraud­u­lent.

Cli­mate change is what so­cial sci­en­tists call a “wicked prob­lem.” Wicked problems are com­pli­cated, multi-faceted, and suf­fer from lim­ited knowl­edge. They are not amenable to trial and er­ror be­cause there are too many dif­fer­ent vari­ables that could ac­count for var­i­ous out­comes.

Cli­mate ac­tivists are a lit­tle weak on com­plex­ity. All that pre­vents hu­man­ity from solv­ing the cli­mate change prob­lem, they say, is big busi­ness (Bernie San­ders calls it “putting short-term prof­its of pol­luters be­fore peo­ple”) and Repub­li­cans.

Ad­mit­tedly, Repub­li­cans who in­dulge the fan­tasy that global warm­ing isn’t a prob­lem are be­ing, at best, ir­re­spon­si­ble. But Democrats who sug­gest that we should sim­ply en­act mea­sures like car­bon taxes be­cause it’s bet­ter to be safe than sorry ig­nore the fact that no pol­icy is cost-free.

Look at France in the past week. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple took to the streets and many ri­oted, set­ting 240 fires and dam­ag­ing the Arc de Tri­om­phe. Why? Be­cause Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron pro­posed to in­crease the al­ready high taxes on gaso­line to com­bat cli­mate change. This doesn’t hit all French­men equally. It’s par­tic­u­larly hard on ru­ral peo­ple who rely more on their cars. Thus does a “pre­cau­tion­ary” act cause so­cial un­rest and stoke ur­ban/ru­ral di­vi­sions. Ad­di­tion­ally, the money spent to thwart cli­mate change is money not spent on other so­cial goods, like help­ing the poor or finding cures for dis­eases. Noth­ing is cost-free.

Peo­ple who are taxed to save the planet are in­clined to ask hard ques­tions, such as: Should I forego a new roof on my house when coun­tries like China are re­spon­si­ble for the lion’s share of emis­sions?

Last year, China’s car­bon emis­sions in­creased by 4.7 per­cent and In­dia’s by 6.3 per­cent. The Euro­pean Union’s emis­sions dropped by 0.7 per­cent, not nearly enough to off­set Asia’s grow­ing economies.

The idea be­hind car­bon taxes is that higher prices will in­cen­tivize the search for al­ter­na­tives. But un­less gov­ern­ments can de­vise meth­ods to en­sure that the poor and near poor are not made worse off — say by pro­vid­ing the taxes back in the form of cred­its — the bur­den will be re­jected by vot­ers.

Speak­ing of be­ing re­jected by vot­ers, an­other mis­guided fear-mon­ger­ing cam­paign by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists has come home to roost now. Re­mem­ber the movie “The China Syn­drome,” the Three Mile Is­land ac­ci­dent, and the hys­te­ria about nu­clear power that fol­lowed? That tantrum es­sen­tially halted the con­struc­tion of new nu­clear power plants in the U.S. — the one form of en­ergy that is cheap, non-car­bon emit­ting and abun­dant. Af­ter the tsunami that crip­pled the Fukushima plant in Ja­pan, Ger­many closed down its nu­clear in­dus­try al­to­gether. Un­rea­son­ing fear blots out clear think­ing.

Nu­clear power is safer than any other. Solutions to this wicked prob­lem will likely be tech­no­log­i­cal. Gov­ern­ment has a role in fund­ing ba­sic re­search (not com­pa­nies like Solyn­dra). Hys­te­ria is not pol­icy.




For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore in a scene from “An In­con­ve­nient Se­quel: Truth to Power.”

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