As I pointed out in a previous post, many conservatives and Republicans are skeptical of global warming and the role humans play in it. (In a March 2011 Gallup survey, for example, 36 percent of Republicans said they believed pollution from human activities had contributed to increases in Earth’s temperature during the last century, while 62 percent of Republicans attributed the warming only to natural changes in the environment.)

They hold this view despite the fact that the science on global warming is near-unanimous: anthropogenic global warming is real. Groups like the National Academy of Sciences, which in the early 1990s issued a report saying that “there is no evidence yet” of dangerous climate change, have shifted their stance, arguing that human activity is having a substantial impact on increases in global temperatures. But what is less clear are the implications of global warming and what steps need to be taken to address it.

Many climate scientists fear that unless dramatic steps are taken soon, we’ll see rising sea levels, contracting ice sheets, more floods and intense tropical cyclones, the spread of tropical diseases like malaria, the submergence of parts of continents, alterations in our ecosystems, and food and water shortages. Perhaps so; those concerns are certainly worth considering. But as Jim Manzi –who combines a sophisticated understanding of the scientific and economic stakes of the climate-change debate — has pointed out, pumping out more CO2 triggers an incredibly complicated set of feedback effects, and the most important scientific debate is really about these feedback effects. In Manzi’s words, “Climate models generate useful projections for us to consider, but the reality is that nobody knows with meaningful precision how much warming we will experience under any emissions scenario. Global warming is a real risk, but its impact over the next century could plausibly range from negligible to severe.”

Conservatives should be part of that conversation. There’s an intellectually credible case to be made that it’s unwise to embrace massive, harmful changes to our economy in the face of significant uncertainties based on incomplete knowledge of how the climate system will respond in the middle part of the 22nd century. It’s reasonable to argue that a meaningful deal to cut carbon emissions among the worst emitting nations (China, the United States, the EU, India, and Russia among them) is almost surely beyond reach and that our focus should be on adaptation (see here) and relatively low-cost investments in technologies rather than drastic carbon cuts. And it’s fair to ask whether the best data suggests that Earth’s temperature has not risen in more than a decade; and if so, why that’s the case.

To acknowledge global warming does not necessarily lead one to embrace Al Gore’s environmental agenda.

But rather than offer constructive ideas on how to deal with global warming, some conservatives simply deny global warming has occurred. Their concern is that admitting global warming is real opens the door to government restriction on liberty, so it’s simply better to keep the door bolted shut. Given the undeniable political agenda some global warming advocates embrace, those concerns are understandable. And some climate scientists have not helped their cause by endangering their role as honest brokers (see the Climate Research Unit scandal at the University  of East Anglia for more). Nevertheless, the problem for those who deny global warming is empirical: Earth’s temperatures have increased and human activity has contributed to it. To deny this is to deny reality, to subordinate truth to ideology. And in the long run that can only damage conservatism.

As I mentioned before, I’m quite open to those who would refine, amend, or contradict my interpretation of things. And in the process we can all agree we should be open to revising our views based on the best evidence we have; that we let facts and data determine our views rather than the other way around. Because even in science, the wish can be father to the cause.


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