Global warming has caused unstoppable Antarctic melting, two separate groups of scientists conclude in an announcement released Monday. Potentially bad news for (far) future South Floridians who’ll find choice real estate slowing submerging. Also bad timing, perhaps, for US Senator Marco Rubio. On Sunday, Rubio, who may run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, told ABC News, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”
Rubio didn’t deny the planet was warming nor that humans play a role. Nor did he advocate a strict “do nothing” stance, saying he had “no problem with taking mitigation activity.” But Rubio’s hedged, modest statement was definitive enough to earn him the ugly “denier” epithet from environmentalists. And a Time magazine columnist wrote that Rubio’s position disqualified him from being president.
But most Americans hold a more nuanced opinion than those Manhattan-Washington elites. They believe human activity is affecting the climate, and that it’s a serious problem. But they also rank global warming pretty low on their list of concerns. Will the consensus GOP stance on climate change hurt its 2016 standard bearer? Maybe in that it reinforces the party’s unhelpful image as old-fashioned and out-of-touch, particularly among younger voters.
Now far be it for a think tanker to suggest politicians let politics drive policy stances. That’s what consultants are for. But as I’ve written before, there’s nothing “conservative” about making an all-or-nothing bet that the vast majority of climate scientists have the story completely wrong. Yes, air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat for 15 years even as greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to increase. Also true that climate models have continually overstated the degree to which the Earth is warming compared with actual climate data.
But are those data points enough to warrant inaction? Here’s MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel on a recent Econtalk podcast talking about his forecast that if carbon emissions don’t slow, global temperatures will rise in a range of 2.5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit:
Nobody pretends to be certain about it. To say it’s between 2.5 and 9 degrees for a doubling or more of CO2, Fahrenheit, it’s to confess that we don’t know. … The near end, it doesn’t morph, it’s 2.5 degrees– we don’t have to worry very much, I would argue. … If it’s in the middle range, there will be problems. Probably we’ll adapt to them. If it’s up at the higher end, that could be catastrophic. And the question for me is: Do we do nothing to avoid, even a small risk of catastrophe for our grandchildren?
Balancing risks and accounting for trade-offs also seem like a political and policy smart way to being thinking about climate change and what to do about it. In “The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future,” Michael Levi recommends energy-related policies clear two hurdles: First, will they “lead to big gains for the economy, security, or the environment”? Second, can they be “pursued without doing substantial damage” to the economy, security, or environment?
By these criteria, aggressive fuel economy mandates should be rejected, but a green light given for a robust public research agenda to make advanced nuclear power more cost competitive and carbon capture feasible. Indeed, Emanuel is a big proponent of nuclear power, and a growing number of environmentalists seem to be embracing that technology. The Breakthrough Institute offers several research goals to help make advanced nuclear power more cost-competitive. And don’t forget about geoengineering in case those worst-case scenarios begin to play out.