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Is Climate Policy Debatable?

May 2, 2019

President Trump is creating a Presidential Committee on Climate Security to scrutinize climate science. 

President Trump is creating a Presidential Committee on Climate Security to scrutinize climate science.  Princeton University physicist William Happer has been identified as a possible committee chair.  Environmental groups consider Mr. Trump’s proposal heretical and label skeptics as climate change deniers.  Nonetheless, I think that climate science, the environment, and our democracy will all benefit from this committee.

Why should we debate a settled question?  Isn’t there “97 percent consensus” among scientists on climate change, and haven’t the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and National Climate Assessment (NCA) already determined that we face a crisis?

Climate consensus studies rely on reviews of published papers or surveys of scientists.  The relevant scientific question is not whether humanity’s use of fossil fuels raises global temperatures, but rather the magnitude of this impact.  The consensus is illusory as agreement on the first question is billed as consensus on the second question.

The IPCC produces two documents, literature reviews conducted by scientists, and a “Summary for Policymakers” dictated by politicians.  The media frequently reports only the “Summary,” which is really an advocacy document for climate alarmism.  Surveys of IPCC scientists reveal far less confidence in the conclusions the Summary offers.

The 2018 NCA report received much media coverage for its dire predictions, but commentators noted numerous flaws.  Roger Pielke, Jr., concluded that the NCA’s authors “have given a big fat gift to anyone who wants to dismiss climate science and policy.”

A significant body of scientific evidence disputes claims of an impending climate catastrophe.  Interested readers can check out the two editions of The Nongovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Climate Change Reconsidered.  Critically assessing the conflicting evidence is a task for the Presidential committee.

What constitutes an existential threat?  The NCA projects that climate change might lower GDP by 10 percent, but that’s not the dire future depicted in Kevin Costner’s movie Waterworld.  We can respond to a climate threat in multiple ways: mitigation, or reducing human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases; adaptation, or adjusting how we live to a warmer climate; and climate engineering, or reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide while still using fossil fuels.  How to address climate change is an economic question.  Exactly which questions does the “settled” climate science settle?

If climate change is an existential threat and we address it solely through mitigation, all nations will likely need to stop using fossil fuels within a few decades.  This will require a significant expansion of government control over the economy.  The impacts on our lives of ending the use of fossil fuels will be enormous.

In political discourse, is more government control over the economy a means of preventing cataclysmic climate change, or an end in itself?  Proponents of markets and economic freedom will understandably demand better evidence to conclude that we face an existential threat than liberals.

Debating climate science today may also help protect the environment.  Without widespread acceptance that we must bear the enormous costs of ending the use of fossil fuels, the required policies will prove politically unsustainable.  President Obama did not submit the Paris Climate accord for Senate ratification and did not invite an open debate.  This allowed President Trump to withdraw via executive order.  Did avoiding debate help stem climate change in the long run?

Liberal democracy is based firmly on the belief that governments serve the interests of citizens.  Americans can disagree on taxes, government spending, and regulation and maintain a liberal democracy in America as long as we accept the legitimacy of each other’s beliefs.  Accepting the right to disagree means using words, ideas, and arguments to advance our favored positions and accept compromises when necessary.

The use of the term “climate change denier” is part of a trend which threatens liberal democracy.  The term equates skepticism about hypothesized climate impacts decades in the future with denial of the Holocaust.  This declares disagreement over climate policy illegitimate.  We will not be able to preserve democracy if many Americans are not allowed to advocate for their favored policies through the political process.

Author
Daniel Sutter is Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center and Professor of Economics at the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.
dsutter@troy.edu