The Politics of Climate Science

Newt Gingrich, while gearing up for a possible Presidential run in 2012, is making the point that legislation to regulate carbon dioxide and reduce global warming will raise the price of energy and deepen the recession.  New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin recently reported that the Global Climate Coalition, a now defunct interest group once linked to the fossil fuel industry was putting out public relations skeptical of global warming science, even when its own experts were confirming the link between fossil fuels and global warming. Maybe Newt should have gotten the memo: global warming is real.

 These industry voices learned that denying scientific fact was a losing strategy. Gingrich may eventually learn the same thing about the economics of global warming. It is true that greenhouse gas regulation will raise the cost of fossil fuels; just as catalytic converters, seat belts and air bags raised the price of cars.  The point is that the costs were outweighed by the benefits. Or perhaps Newt would like to live in a world where cars were “unsafe at any speed” and the air was something you could see as well as breathe.

In the long run, global warming will cost more than the cost of moving to a fossil fuel free economy. Think about how much it would cost to build a system of sea walls to protect New York City’s 600 miles of coast line from the impact of sea level rise. Fossil fuels are finite resources. While there may be enough left for a hundred years, doesn’t our species plan to be around after that? Fossil fuels will become increasingly scarce, harder to pull out of the earth, and more expensive. On the other hand renewable energy is not finite and will only get less expensive as its technology develops.  The short run pain of a carbon tax will increase the competitiveness of renewables and ultimately lower the price of energy.

 Renewable energy results in lower prices in the long run and even in the short run, we can buffer the economic impact of higher fuel prices with more efficient use of energy. Americans waste enormous amounts of energy. It leaks out of our homes and we pump it into gas guzzling vehicles that could get twice as many miles to the gallon as they do today. A 30% increase in the price of fossil fuels can be absorbed by increasing energy efficiency by the same amount.

 Global warming is not a joke. Its onset will be far from cost free. We now know that even the energy business knew the facts on global warming, but tried to suppress them. Newt Gingrich is smart enough to know that taxing carbon dioxide emissions will do more than generate revenue for the government. It will encourage energy efficiency and energy alternatives. Our long term economic growth depends on energy innovation. We need to be the world leader in renewable energy technology. If we don’t do it, someone else will.

 Why are these business and political leaders willing to lie and distort the truth? Newt is hoping it can gain him some attention in the 2012 Republican Presidential contest. The energy industry is obviously hoping for a few more quarters of large profits before they are submerged by the impacts of sea level rise.  In Gingrich’s case, you could argue that he is simply acting out of his long-standing opposition to taxation of all kinds. In the case of the Global Climate Coalition, the story has no redeeming value. They just decided to lie and hide the truth.

 It is amazing that skepticism about the facts of global warming remains. Without it, Gingrich would not dare attack policies that will regulate the emission of greenhouse gasses. In the more complex world of the 21st century, the people who lead our government and our businesses need a firm understanding of scientific reality. Controversy is often part of new scientific discoveries. Science sometimes leads to breakthroughs that can change our understanding of how the world works. But while new discoveries often emerge and create controversy, they are eventually confirmed and a scientific consensus emerges. That consensus is built on fact, not opinion.

 The scientific establishment has a variety of institutions that can be used to settle scientific controversies. Those institutions have uniformly confirmed the facts of global warming.  We ignore that science at our peril.  Our political institutions need to do a better job of absorbing and acting on scientific information. Of course suppressing and playing politics with science is destructive. As we learn to cope with global climate change, let’s hope that we also learn to do a better job of integrating scientific fact into the policy making process. Let’s act as if our lives depend on it: Because they might.

  The Politics of Climate Science