Vox Begs the Question on Climate Change ‘Lukewarmers’

Over at Vox yesterday, Brad Plumer explained why he’s upset that Trump’s cabinet-level nominees are acknowledging climate change. According to Plumer, Trump set “the lowest bar imaginable” when he tweeted that climate change is a hoax, so now his nominees look reasonable when they say that climate change is not a hoax and instead cite it as one among many problems facing the world today. This is too much for Plumer, who explains:

As my colleague David Roberts noted the other day, the term of art for this stance — which Tillerson, Zinke, and Pruitt all share — is “lukewarmism.” A lukewarmer is someone who won’t be so crass as to argue that climate change is a hoax, and doesn’t really want to fight over whether climate change is actually happening, but certainly has no intention of supporting serious emissions reductions anytime soon and will usually quibble endlessly about the extent and severity of global warming.

These lukewarmers, among whom I count myself, bother Plumer because they appear reasonable, even though they disagree with Vox’s Card Stack of recommended policy preferences. As he explains:

The gap between crude deniers like Trump and lukewarmers like Pruitt isn’t huge in practice. You get the same policies either way. One big difference, however, is that most onlookers (the press included) feel perfectly comfortable calling out Trump’s clownish denialism, whereas lukewarmism is a little murkier, harder to pin down and dissect. Deftly sidestepping the question over whether climate change is real is a savvier way to support inaction. And with Trump out there making the most outlandish statements possible, there’s plenty of cover to pull this off.

The big problem with Plumer’s explanation is that he begs the question, and thereby wholly discounts the position he dismisses.

Allow me to explain. In Plumer’s mind, climate change equals catastrophe, period:

If you go through authoritative sources on climate science, like the various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they are crystal clear on what’s going on. The Earth’s climate is warming significantly and there’s no doubt that human activity (particularly the burning of fossil fuels) is responsible for the majority of the warming since 1950. As temperatures keep rising, it will lead to very serious changes — such as large-scale sea-level rise along the coasts — that will have significant impacts on human society for thousands of years. And slowing or halting these changes will likely require drastic changes to our energy system (along with serious adaptation measures).

Plumer doesn’t seem to be able to comprehend that different people can look at the above “facts” and come to different conclusions. So, for a lukewarmer, sea-level rise that is dramatic on geological time scales (“thousands of years”), is less dramatic on human time scales and thereby affords civilization the option of adaptation. So where Plumer and his ilk see an apocalypse, the lukewarmer sees a non-catastrophic problem capable of being managed.  From the same fact-pattern, we draw different inferences.

That said, lukewarmers agree with Plumer that climate change mitigation would entail “drastic changes to our energy system.” What the lukewarmer does is weigh the tremendous costs of climate policy against the supposed harms wrought by climate change. 

The lukewarmer’s key insight is that policy has costs and that these costs can harm human beings just as surely as can a changing climate. Much of these costs are direct, in the form of making “drastic changes to our energy system,” as Plumer puts it. But there are also opportunity costs. We live in a resource-constrained world, and there exist other problems in addition to non-catastrophic global warming. These current problems include poverty, cancer, ISIS, education, etc., etc., etc. Thus aware, the lukewarmer will balance the costs and benefits of climate policy, and make a reasoned choice.

Unfortunately, you don’t find much reason among climate change “alarmists” (you see, two can play the epithet game). For example, Plumer refuses to countenance that climate change could fall short of doomsday. He bemoans that lukewarmers “quibble endlessly about the extent and severity of global warming,” as if the “extent and severity” are immaterial to the debate about policy. This is what I meant when I accused Plumer of begging the question. He assumes that global warming is the end-all threat, which is the very assumption that lukewarmers challenge.

There is another example that demonstrates the irrationality of global warming obsessives. To a (wo)man, all alarmist American politicians claim that climate policy will make us rich. For example, President Obama promises 5 million green jobs, or Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy tells us that the Clean Power Plan will make energy cheaper. These are lies that obfuscate an essential truth: climate policy has severe costs. These lying politicians undermine honest debate when they try to mislead the public. Unlike these elected officials whom Plumer evidently supports, lukewarmers seek a forthright engagement about the costs.

I should note one final point—lukewarmism is squarely on the side of the American people. Consider:

  • Poll after poll demonstrates that Americans give ultra-low priority to doing something about climate change in a world of limited resources and more pressing problems.
  • In 2010, South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis lost a primary battle by 70%-29% after expressing support for a carbon tax. As my colleague Myron Ebell noted on Nightline, only incumbent politicians who are in jail lose this badly in primaries. Inglis himself blamed the lopsided defeat on his support for a carbon tax.
  • President Barack Obama conspicuously dodged all mention of climate change on the reelection campaign trail in 2012. Far from it, Obama actually tried to outflank Romney’s right on energy policy during the debate in Denver. Only after winning a second term and escaping further political accountability did Obama pivot to climate change as a second term legacy issue.
  • President-elect Trump beat Hillary Clinton, despite having called climate change a hoax.

I’m heartened when I review this record, which speaks to the wisdom of the American voter. As with lukewarmers, the electorate treats global warming as one among many priorities competing for limited resources.