Commentary Magazine


The Global-Warming “Consensus”

I thought that Max Boot’s analogy between the conventional wisdom on climate change and the pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s WMD’s was an apt one. But I’m not sure why he concluded from this that conservatives should abandon their skepticism about efforts to “fight” climate change by curtailing CO2 emissions. It seems to me that one should logically draw the opposite conclusion—namely, that we ought to be wary of the “consensus” of “experts” on matters where the uncertainty is large, the stakes are high, and political pressures are at work.

In this respect, the latest IPCC Summary for Policymakers doesn’t really do much to change the picture. (These summaries have tended to offer a rather skewed representation of the actual reports they purport to summarize, as the Wall Street Journal reminds us.) The latest summary hardly even qualifies as news: it merely reiterates the “consensus” that human activity has contributed to an increase in the atmospheric levels of various greenhouse gases, and that such increases are correlated with climate change. Whereas previous IPCC reports told us that a causal relationship was simply likely, now we are told that it is almost certain. The question is, precisely what kind of causation is almost certain?

Some facts are not in serious dispute: the earth has certainly warmed over the past 120 years, by somewhat less than one degree Centigrade; atmospheric levels of CO2 have increased from about 270 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in pre-industrial times to about 385 ppmv today; and all else being equal, increased CO2 should contribute to warming. But it is warming’s potential corollaries, such as droughts, rising sea levels, and increased storm activity, that worry people—and which are far less certain to occur than simple warming, as the IPCC Summary acknowledges.

Trying to estimate the human contribution to these various trends merely compounds the unknowns. But let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that everything that Al Gore has said about climate change, its anthropogenic origins, and our need to respond immediately to it is true. Does it follow from this assumption that the best solution is to impose Kyoto-style caps on industrial emissions, or some sort of carbon tax? Not so fast. There’s another question we should be asking first: where’s the CO2 coming from?

Much of it does come from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation and industry, as we all know by now. But up to a third of the CO2 added to the atmosphere by human beings comes from the combustion of biomass in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Burning biomass isn’t exactly a clean process—it directly releases various pollutants, including aerosols (which contribute to climate change in ways that are still unclear), nitrogen oxides (major contributors to smog), and methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2).

I haven’t done the math, but it seems pretty obvious that trying to end biomass burning—for example, by boosting aid to Africa—would be a much more effective first step in combating climate change than the Kyoto Protocol, which, as even its backers acknowledge, will accomplish more or less nothing. It would probably be much cheaper, too. So why don’t we hear more about the biomass burning problem?

My hunch is that it’s for the same reason we don’t hear climate watchdogs aggressively promoting low-carbon energy sources like nuclear power: they are less interested in the problem than in solutions that involve more government, less industry, and a redistribution of wealth. If this is true, conservatives are right to remain highly skeptical. One doesn’t have to be scientifically literate to recognize the political attractiveness of the climate-change issue to the Al Gores of the world.

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