Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Different Tactics, Same Result for Climate Change Skeptics

As I wrote on Friday, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act fell to a filibuster. Some press reports indicate that terms of the debate are changing. Instead of denying the science outright, opponents of greenhouse gas reductions accept the science and now attack reduction plans based on the estimated cost. I think that we ought to be skeptical that changes in tactics mark a real improvement.

First of all, I am not sure that this claim is true. One of the highest-profile opponents of reductions, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), is just as much of a denialist now as he always has been. The minority page of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee posted a recent story claiming that the climate is cooling and still has prominent links to Inhofe's "Skeptic’s Guide to Debunking Global Warming Alarmism." In the debate over the Lieberman-Warner bill, he claimed that everything in An Inconvenient Truth was refuted by the IPCC.

Second, offering cost-based objections is still obstructionism. A bill blocked on the basis of outright denialism gives the same outcome as a bill blocked on the basis of cost. Cost-based objections exist at one end of a spectrum of denial and delaying tactics. Depending on which argument is most convenient, obstructionists will deny that the climate is warming, or that warming is caused by humans, or that the effects will be harmful, or that it is possible to cut emissions without wrecking the economy. (These all have many variants and sometimes occur simultaneously.) Since the outcomes are the same, the specific tactics do not matter to heavy-carbon industries and their supporters in the Senate.

Climate science does not only include analysis of how greenhouse gases will change the climate. It also predicts the effects of warming temperatures – on sea levels, on our food supply, on human health, on ecosystems and wildlife, to name a few. All of these effects impose very real economic costs, which ought to be part of any cost-benefit arguments in the debate over what actions to take. Focusing only on the costs of reducing emissions, while ignoring the costs of doing nothing, is at best myopic and at worst implicitly denies the science underlying the calls for action.