Commentary Magazine


Maybe Al Gore Is Right

Conservatives like to think of themselves as hard-headed, flinty-eyed realists who draw conclusions based on the way the world actually works, not on the way they would prefer it to work. They deride liberals as sentimentalists who never let facts interfere with their preferred policy prescriptions, whether in favor of the minimum wage or arms control. Yet there are some issues on which conservatives will not let any amount of evidence shake their own faith-based politics. Global warming is a prime example.

Last week the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change released its fourth Summary for Policymakers, a publication representing the consensus view of hundreds of scientists from around the world. The experts found with “very high confidence” (meaning 90 percent certainty) that human activity is responsible for a substantial increase in greenhouse gases, and they warn that if left unchecked, these trends could have catastrophic ecological consequences within our lifetime. Similar reports have been issued by other expert bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Meteorological Society.

I’ve always been skeptical of global-warming arguments, but as a scientific illiterate, it’s hard for me to argue with the consensus of the scientific community. Many of my fellow conservatives, by contrast, refuse to concede the possibility that Al Gore may be right after all. Check out, among others: George Will, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Senator James Inhofe, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and even Kevin Shapiro in the September 2006 issue of COMMENTARY.

I am sympathetic to some of their arguments, in particular when they point out the problems with the Kyoto Protocol, which mandates major emissions reductions by the U.S. and other rich nations while allowing growing pollution by developing nations such as China and India. In fact, some of the most effective answers to global warming may be politically incorrect—for instance, substituting nuclear energy for oil or coal.

But too many on the Right still refuse to acknowledge the basic reality that the climate is changing in potentially dangerous ways due to human activity, and that we need to reduce carbon emissions to address this looming crisis. Skeptics can always dredge up a rogue scientist or two to buttress their case, just as liberals can always find an economist or two to make the case for raising the minimum wage. But why should a few fringe figures dictate governmental policy?

I would think supporters of the invasion of Iraq would be more sympathetic to arguments for preventative action based on the best available intelligence.