Don’t Let Public Squabbling Be an Action Distraction

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The Obama administration’s early leadership on global warming seems to have stirred up the climate skeptics, cynics and deniers again. Now they’re trying to discredit not only climate science, but the climate scientists the president appointed to advise him.

But when it comes to what President Obama, Congress and the rest of us should be doing, none of the squabbling matters. Outside our laboratories and classrooms and scientific journals, the chronic arguments about global warming have very little to do with the fundamental challenge ahead: Making the fastest possible transition to a green economy.

Why? Because climate change is an issue where you don’t have to agree on the problem to agree on the solutions.

First, some background on the latest media debate.

The Washington Post allowed George Will to waste some perfectly good ink to argue that Obama’s science advisors are "dark green doomsayers." The New York Times followed suit, publishing a column by John Tierney, who featured a book by Roger Pielke, a researcher at the University of Colorado who says some climate scientists are engaging in "stealth issue advocacy."

He singles out Obama science adviser John Holdren. Pielke also has blasted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While other critics have said the IPCC is too conservative in its assessment of the seriousness of climate change, Pielke has posted a piece on his web site accusing the IPCC of being more about politics than science. He writes:

The IPCC is actually a relatively small group of individuals who are using the IPCC process to control what policymakers and the public learn about climate on multi-decadal time scales.

Next came Andy Revkin of the Times in a news analysis titled “In the Debate on Climate Change, Exaggeration is a Common Pitfall.” Citing what he called fact problems in Will’s column and in a slide recently shown by Al Gore, Revkin writes:

In the effort to shape the public’s views on global climate change, hyperbole is an ever-present temptation on all sides of the debate. … The events illustrate the fine line that advocates on all sides walk – and sometimes cross – in using science to bolster their arguments over what should or should not be done about global warming.

But while public battles between the titans and sub-titans of media and science may be entertaining – it’s a kind of brainiack wrestlemania with politicians, pundits, pseudo-scientists, amateur climatologists, professional contrarians and paid witnesses all climbing into the ring – the battles are largely a distraction from action.

There are at least two reasons we shouldn’t let the debate delay aggressive national policies and investments that reduce carbon emissions.

The first is the well-known Precautionary Principle. It was either Gore or Arnold Schwarzenegger, I believe, who explained the Precautionary Principle with this analogy: Suppose your daughter is sick. You take her to 10 doctors. Nine of them diagnose cancer; the tenth disagrees. Do you treat her for cancer? Responsible parents would say yes. We can argue about the prognosis, we can differ on our estimate of how quickly the cancer is progressing, but we need to treat it.

The second reason is what we might call the Wealth of Benefits Principle, the basis of my statement that you don’t have to believe in climate change to accept that taking action is a great idea. The prescription for fighting global warming – a shift from fossil fuels to low- and no-carbon energy – has so many benefits that we’d have to be misanthropes, anthropomaniacs or Armageddonites to argue against it.

To illustrate, take this test: Do any of the following appeal to you?

    1. Dramatically reducing childhood asthma and suffering from other illnesses caused by air pollution from vehicles and power plants.

    2. Lowering the strain those illnesses put on the health care system and its costs.

    3. Ending the subsidies we send to terrorist organizations with our purchases of gasoline and other petroleum products.

    4. Plugging the massive hole in the national economy, in which we transfer huge amounts of American wealth to oil-producing nations.

    5.Creating the equivalent of new tax-free disposable income for every energy consumer (that’s all of us) by improving the energy efficiency of our vehicles, homes, businesses and communities.

    6. Unhitching the economy from supply disruptions and price volatility associated with fossil fuels, including extortion by unfriendly oil-producing nations.

    7. Ending the many other damages to humans and the environment caused by fossil energy production, including oil and slurry spills, groundwater contamination, the dumping of mine waste into waterways, the demolition of mountains, and the loss of wilderness and wildlife habitat to drilling.

    8. Minimizing the loss of life and property worldwide to drought, wildfires, floods and hurricanes.

    9. Reducing traffic congestion so we have more time to court our spouses and play with our kids.

    10. Living in communities where the essentials are no more than a 15-minute walk or a 5-minute bicycle ride away.

    11. Being able to eat fish without fear of mercury poisoning.

    12. Making it far less likely that we will have to send our children to war to seize foreign oil supplies.

    13. Creating millions of green jobs that can’t be exported overseas.

    14. Making much of our own electricity on our rooftops rather than paying utilities to do it, and powering our cars with green electric energy rather than paying Exxon Mobil and the other oil companies to do it.

    15. Traveling between cities on modern, high-speed trains rather than waiting in airport security lines, being frisked by TSA, suffering delays and missed connections, and losing our luggage on airlines.

    16. Helping the poor in America and in other nations achieve a decent and sustainable standard of living.

    17. Creating a national energy system that is less vulnerable to terrorist attack, sabotage and outages caused by natural disasters.

I could go on.

According to Revkin, surveys show that roughly 20 percent of Americans believe the conclusions of most climate scientists that we have a big problem, while another 20 percent don’t. Surely among the many economic, health and national security benefits of green energy, reasonable people – a category that I trust is larger than 20 percent – can agree on the need for a clean energy economy.

Some of us get our kicks by climbing into the ring to play smash-mouth over climate science. Some of us are paid to do it. But don’t be distracted by the show. Whether you’re a true believer, an atheist or an agnostic on climate change, we have a common job to do and it’s time for us to get to work.