Our Conversation About the Environment is Broken. What is the Way Forward?

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In 1970, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin predicted that “accelerating rates of air pollution could become so serious by the 1980s that many people may be forced on the worst days to wear breathing helmets to survive outdoors.” Buoyed by a United Nations proclamation, Nelson inaugurated Earth Day 51 years ago and called for a national teach-in.

Fortunately, he was wrong about air pollution. A society producing technological advances, paired with an increasingly wealthy population, has the means and the motivation to take good care of the environment.

Unfortunately, that lesson seems to have been lost in the past half-century. Today the battle lines are drawn on climate change. It is commonly held that there is no meaningful debate about the Earth’s changing climate or what to do about it. This framing has produced misleading analysis and helped block effective, durable environmental policies.

We have to be willing to see what is right in front of us without losing the faculties of reason or skepticism. It’s time to recognize that there are real limits to what we know, and that the less environmental goals are used as political wedge issues, the more progress we’ll all make toward a healthier, more sustainable, and prosperous future.

The most robust response to global challenges such as climate is adaptation. Adaptive solutions require economic development. It is the principal means by which additional resources can be created to devote to the central threats to our ecosystem.

Adaptation also demands clear-eyed assessments of the world as it is. Consider one example. Forests are being cut down, with devastating effects on local biodiversity and water quality. But overall, the planet is greening, and the tree canopy is expanding, which results in greater carbon capture. Both are true, and neither should be ignored because it is inconvenient to a preferred political narrative. Strengthening property rights and local rule of law where forests are jeopardized is a market solution that advances green activists’ priorities for biodiversity and carbon capture. It is something everyone can agree upon.

Other important facts are not seriously contested. For example, after a significant slowdown in the rate of warming, global temperatures appear to be rising at about 0.17 degrees Celsius per decade. Further, the relationship between carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere to the greenhouse effect is clear. These things can be observed and agreed upon. But neither the rate of temperature change nor the longer-term consequences of warming are easy to predict.

Our government relies on predictive scientific models that are periodically tweaked. With decades of actual data, it is clear the models have consistently over-predicted warming. Yet, these problems are rarely given any cautionary weight in policy deliberations.

We have a half-century of dire environmental predictions that are usually wrong in the same direction. That raises the question of how much science is being undermined by a political agenda. Is the problem models that do not perform or our attachment to the terror of environmental apocalypse?

This fear is the second major problem we must overcome to improve the quality of our policy debate. Fear of carbon dioxide obscures the near-term and very real consequences of radical climate policies that could have consequences worse than those of a warming atmosphere.

Consider the poorest among us. According to the International Energy Agency, Africa will be the most populous region on Earth by 2023. Today there are 600 million Africans without access to electricity and 900 million who lack clean water. Achieving a reliable electricity supply for this population will require a huge investment, about four times pre-pandemic trends, of $120 billion a year, every year through 2040.

That gargantuan figure assumes access to the most readily available forms of energy: fossil fuels. Without such access, lower-income nations will not enjoy improving standards of living, education, and health. Instead, disease and war are their future. Ironically, depriving these people of a carbon economy likely leads to the very apocalyptic conditions we all want to avoid.

Renewable energy can be a crucial piece of a greener energy future, but we need to be realistic about its limits, the costs of production and disposal, and the secondary effects for the communities producing the raw materials necessary, often with child labor.

Last year a Dutch government-sponsored study concluded that the Netherlands’s renewable energy ambitions alone would consume a major share of global minerals. Considering that the U.S. consumes 30 times more energy than the Netherlands, the study concluded: “Exponential growth in [global] renewable energy production capacity is not possible with present-day technologies and annual metal production.” The report also determined that meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement would require the global production of some metals to grow at least 12-fold by 2050.

An effective climate strategy must be itself sustainable. That requires some measure of humility and an honest evaluation of real-world trade-offs, the linkage between energy use and human welfare, the technological vulnerabilities of alternatives to fossil fuels, and how little we know about the future of something as complex as climate.

That uncertainty demands honesty about the confidence we have, and ought to have, in what we know and can predict. It is a feature, not a bug, of sound climate policy. It should inform understanding of both benefits and costs that flow from any policy choice.

The lives and livelihoods of real people are at stake. We have a responsibility to be clear-eyed and humble about real-world consequences. That means admitting when we are wrong and, equally important, when someone with a different view has a valid point. It means our latter-day Gaylord Nelsons should focus less on scaremongering and more on the genuine learning that could result from a teach-in.

Originally published by The Washington Examiner.