Global Warming: The Backlash Begins

Global Warming: The Backlash Begins

Op-ed in The DC Examiner
March 17, 2009
Originally published in The DC Examiner

Environmentalists and their allies in the Administration were
stunned by the news last week that skepticism about the effects of
global warming is growing. With complete domination of both the
mainstream media and the political institutions by true believers in
global warming, the news from Gallup that 44 percent of Americans
believe that global warming has been exaggerated must have come as a
shock. Yet last week’s news contained two good examples of why this
should be, and why the debate that Al Gore claims is over may only just
be starting.

One of the main reasons Americans are
expressing such distrust about what they are told on the subject is
that the science is often patently exaggerated. An example came last
week from a conference held in Copenhagen where there were
widely-reported claims that global warming could destroy 85 percent of
the Amazon rainforest. Vicky Pope of the Met Office, the UK’s version
of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
told the conference, “The impacts of climate change on the Amazon are
much worse than we thought. As temperatures rise quickly over the
coming century the damage to the forest won’t be obvious straight away,
but we could be storing up trouble for the future.”

Yet this
claim was immediately challenged by other scientists. Dr Yadvinder
Malhi, an Oxford University expert on the subject of the Amazon and
climate change, said in an email, “I must say I find it frustrating
that the gloomiest take on news gets such a big profile. This is based
on one model, and that model has flaws…If that conclusion was based on
solid empirical science then so be it, but when such a story goes out
on a pure model study (not yet peer-reviewed) with significant
imperfections, it may do a lot of damage in the real world.” Indeed,
the Met Office’s model has been criticized before, with a 2007 study
from the University of Arizona finding that the mechanism on which the
Met Office predictions were based was actually not present in the
short-term.

What appears to have happened is that scientists
have abandoned traditional methods of communicating science for an
approach based on catastrophism – an extreme application of the news
maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Yet this approach is inherently
unscientific. As Mike Hulme, who directs the influential Tyndall Centre
for Climate Change Research in the UK, has written, “I believe climate
change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of
catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive
and reactionary trajectory.” The rejection of exaggeration is proof of
Hulme’s wisdom.

Yet even if the scientific debate doesn’t
permeate the consciousness of the average American except as obviously
contrived, there is another reason for Americans to feel skeptical. The
“sticker shock” of the cost of climate alarmism is starting to hit.
Most people know by now that the President’s enormous budget relies in
part on an increasing income stream from fees on energy use, called a
cap-and-trade program by economists. When the Congressional Budget
Office examined a similar scheme last year, it found that the costs of
such a scheme rested most heavily on the lowest income levels. This
should be unsurprising; the poorest spend a greater proportion of their
income on energy than anyone else. Therefore, the supposed tax break
that 95 percent of working Americans have been promised by the
President will to a large extent be wiped out by the increase in energy
costs. All this for a purported effect on greenhouse gas emissions far
less than the Kyoto Protocol demanded.

Now Congressional
Republicans could be expected to object to this, but more interesting
opposition is forming in the ranks of Congressional Democrats,
particularly the so-called “blue dogs.” They are unhappy that the money
raised from cap and trade is not being used to soften the blow on the
poor in a more targeted fashion than a general tax break. Senate budget
committee chairman Kent Conrad put it bluntly: “There an awful lot of
senators who are on the margins of this issue who would be very
concerned if their leverage was reduced by that mechanism.” It should
be noted that every attempt to introduce a cap and trade program in the
Senate has floundered on this very issue: it appears to cost much more
than the supposed benefits it will provide.

Moreover,
initiatives such as the President’s raise cynicism about environmental
policies. In Europe, where they have been trying such things for a
while now, there is widespread belief that “green taxes” do not help
the environment. For example, when asked to describe the motivations
for politicians to promote green taxes, 74 percent of Britons polled
said that, “politicians are not serious about the environment and are
using the issue as an excuse to raise more revenue from green taxes.”

If
they believe that neither scientists nor politicians are to be trusted
on environmental issues (and given that we only hear one side from the
mainstream media, we can extend that to journalists too), then
Americans are likely to grow increasingly cynical about
environmentalism. If there are genuine concerns over the environment,
then they need to be debated on a credible. So far, environmentalists
have rejected so-called “no regrets” approaches that use genuine
market-based principles to reduce environmental risks. The atmosphere
they have helped create, however, may mean they are the only
politically acceptable option. It’s time to forget hype and taxes, and
explore another way.

Iain Murray is Senior Fellow in Science, Energy and Technology at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.