Monday, February 22, 2010

Climate insurance

What do you know, an entirely sensible editorial in the Washington Post, which has a mixed record in its articles on climate change: Tthe earth is warming. A chief cause is the increase in greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Humans are at least in part responsible, because the oil, gas and coal that we burn releases these gases. If current trends persist, it's likely that in coming decades the globe's climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.

Contrary to what you may have read lately, there are few reputable scientists who would disagree with anything in that first paragraph. Yet suddenly we're hearing that climate change is in doubt and that action to combat it is unlikely. What's going on?

…Politicians nonetheless have seized on both the trivial mistakes and the complexity of the science to cast doubt on the underlying and unrefuted truth of human-caused greenhouse gas accumulation. In many cases, it is hard to know whether they are being obtuse or dishonest, and hard to know which would be worse. To see Virginia's newly elected attorney general join in this know-nothingism is an embarrassment to the state.

What's the right response? It seems to us there are two key arguments that can provide some shelter for politicians who want to do the right thing. The first is to acknowledge a level of uncertainty in the predictions and make the case for taking out an insurance policy, as would any prudent homeowner. It's true that we don't know for sure how many degrees warmer the Earth will be, on average, by 2050 or what effect this will have on the ferocity of storms or coastal flooding or starvation-inducing drought. But it's also true that, as the science has progressed, the predictions have become more dire, not less -- and that they are still as likely to be too optimistic as the reverse. If there is action that can be taken, now, to begin to reduce the dangers, why would we not do so?

… [T]his is the second key point -- the action that would have the most beneficial effect with regard to climate change is in the national interest anyway. A gradually rising carbon tax made sense even before "global warming" entered most people's vocabulary. Almost as useful would be a simple cap-and-rebate system that required industry to pay for greenhouse-gas emissions. …

The Allegory of Wisdom and Strength, by Veronese, c. 1580. Because some topics are just plain hard to illustrate

No comments: