False Uncertainty

The New York Times wants to promote dialogue between left and right on climate. This is a worthy impulse. And the person they have hired towards this end, a conservative journalist with a history of climate denial, states in his first piece for the Times that he accepts as “indisputable” the human influence on the observed warming of the earth since the late 19th century. Good.

The rest of Stephens’ piece, though, is a stew of innuendo and misdirection, in service of no apparent goal beyond a smug scolding of some unnamed others’ perceived “100% certainty” on climate.

Who and what is Stephens talking about? The entire climate science literature, including the 2014 IPCC Report (which Stephens cites), is full of statements about uncertainty about virtually all aspects of future climate change. What climate scientist or credible policy maker has ever claimed anything is 100% certain? It would be great if a conservative writer who accepts the science on climate would engage, seriously and sincerely, with real arguments made by credible climate scientists and advocates of climate action on the pages of the Times. Stephens, instead, takes the lazy route, arguing with straw men.

Stephens shows no interest in making constructive arguments in defense of any actual position. He doesn’t articulate any specific view on climate policy, which is what really ought to matter to Times readers of any political persuasion. But one is left to assume he thinks we don’t need to do anything about global warming. Why? Because nothing is 100% certain.

This passes for substantive argument in some circles. Though his acceptance of scientific fact – at least in this piece, if not his prior work – distinguishes him from the climate deniers at the Heartland Institute and Heritage Foundation, Stephens’ strategy is nonetheless the same cynical one as theirs: promote doubt, nothing more. He seems to be saying that liberals (or someone) should be more tolerant of conservative “skepticism” on climate, but that skeptics have no need to justify their views (or even to have any), because it’s ok just to be generally skeptical.

And Stephens is uninterested in applying any of this skepticism to the claims of those opposed to climate action. Presumably referring to (unnamed) proposals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he writes that “Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions.” Leaving aside the crass culture-warring tone – saying those who are in favor of climate action are “demanding” while those opposed are just “raising fair questions” is particularly absurd under the current regime in Washington – how well do we know how expensive any proposed climate policy is? Predictions of the economic impacts of climate policies are far more uncertain than climate projections. The price of renewable energy is dropping much more rapidly than nearly anyone expected a few years ago. Isn’t there some excessive certainty here that could benefit from self-examination?

Perhaps what Stephens means by “100% certainty” is the passion among many for the view that the evidence of a human influence on climate is sufficient to merit a serious policy response. This passion does not require absolute certainty on any aspect of the science, just an intellectually honest view of risk. Because what the genuine uncertainty on climate really means is that while there is a chance future climate change won’t be as bad as the projections say is most likely, there is also a chance it will be much worse.

In no other area of life do we respond to risks by simply assuming the best case scenario. We take out insurance on our homes not because we are 100% certain they will burn down, but because there is a chance they might. Climate should be no different – except that the situation now is more like one in which a wildfire is already spreading towards our house, and we’re just debating whether it will singe the house a little or consume it entirely. How is skepticism a justification for inaction, as long as one accepts at least some possibility that the science is right?

This is the fundamental dishonesty of Stephens’ piece, and of all those who justify inaction by claims of skepticism. It makes no sense to be opposed to any action to mitigate global warming just because there is uncertainty in climate projections. The only way it makes sense is if you’re certain the science is entirely wrong. Or, though maybe you don’t want to say it, you just don’t care, because you’re pretty sure it won’t affect you personally. That is the true false certainty, masquerading as skepticism.

Thanks to Emmanuel Vincent of Climate Feedback for asking me to write this.

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