Charles Krauthammer is right about one thing in his misleading column on global warming: Good science is dynamic, even ruthless. So is Krauthammer’s prose, but in a way that obscures and confuses more than it reveals.
Scientists continually update their understanding of the universe. New observations discredit old theories. It’s not a field for sentimentalists or ideologues. And it’s wrong to behave as though scientific holdings are impervious to improvement, whether quantum field theory or climate change. So, Krauthammer says, science, even climate science, is never “settled.”
Well, fine, but that unspectacular semantic point doesn’t lead to the conclusion Krauthammer goads the reader to reach: That high concern over climate change, with its attendant policy implications, is secular religion posing in the garb of science, worthy of contempt and dismissal.
Krauthammer first admits that “it cannot be good for humanity to be spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” a conclusion he admits elsewhere that he “believes instinctively,” before scolding people who make scientific statements without firm grounding. Claiming merely to argue that there are large uncertainties in climate science, Krauthammer then encourages his readers to believe that it is hopelessly misguided to estimate what emitting large quantities of greenhouse emissions will do to the planet. Scientists’ models aren’t reality, he tautologically points out. He even repeats the tired line that warming has been on a “pause” for the last 15 years, neglecting the point that climate scientists deal with effects visible on far longer time scales, not short-term periods filled with “noise” from other variables.
In fact, climate scientists — even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of skeptics’ disdain — admit that wide uncertainty remains about the quantity and quality of the effects emitting so much carbon dioxide will have. They reckon that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from pre-industrial levels will raise the average global temperature between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius. Despite years of trying, they haven’t been able to make estimates much more precise.
The more responsible skeptics cling to the fact that it’s admittedly very hard to predict how bad human-influenced climate change will be, and they question whether it will be worth diverting much national wealth to stave it off. Krauthammer’s column focuses so much on discrediting mainstream scientists and politicians concerned about climate change that it will mostly serve as intellectual cover for those who don’t want to believe any of it. But he nevertheless appears to fall into this more responsible camp, if only “instinctively.”
More responsible, but also reckless. Scientists probably won’t have a precise estimate for the climate’s sensitivity to human-emitted greenhouse gases until they directly affect the planet in more significant, easily measurable ways. If, at that point, the sensitivity falls above the low end of the scientists’ estimated range, humans will have a very large, very expensive problem to solve. The reason people should reduce greenhouse emissions now, with more ambition than Krauthammer’s instinctive science would apparently justify, is to hedge against that future, rather than behaving as though the results will be benign because climate scientists aren’t perfect, let alone the activists who cite them.
Krauthammer, though, doesn’t address this argument. After poking a few holes in contemporary climate science, he instead bravely attacks politicians and activists who have said ascientific things about global warming. Yes, people shouldn’t attribute particular weather events to climate change — though it’s fair to point out that scientists predict a higher frequency of certain disasters, such as droughts, on a warming globe. Too, some activists approach the issue with a theological fervor; the hysteria over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is an example of that.
But it is easy to favor, say, placing a significant and rising tax on carbon dioxide emissions while scorning these excesses. It’s also easy to understand why Krauthammer would rather contend with the environmental movement’s self-appointed straw men.