The End of the Climate War

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., Sept. 7, 2010 — The time has come for all of us to abandon the sterile, and now futile, brawl over massive federal legislation to deal with the alleged problem of global warming. For the advocates of measures such as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade (a second-best tax), or Environmental Protection Agency command-and-control regulation, the game is up. The 111th Congress has rejected the green agenda, which never got any traction with the general public. Nothing on the political horizon suggests that judgment will change in the next couple of years.

For the most-shrill advocates for a comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction policy and the most-badgering opponents, the time has come to lay down arms, stop personal attacks, cease endless carping, and try to come to some agreements on where to go next. I’ve long been a skeptic of the extreme green agenda on climate issues, but have never countenanced ad hominem attacks from any direction.

My chief objection to the warming agenda is that it has seldom been about whether the earth is warming, but about how to use that possibility – or even certainty in many minds – to advance a political vision for environmental and energy policy that existed before the twists-and-turns of climate science. That agenda, put too simply perhaps, is to take the world off fossil fuels. But I believe that is a pipe dream, and not even a good dream at that, particularly if you live in those parts of the world that heat and cook with twigs, branches, and the dried dung of ruminants.

The environmental movement lost its way with the climate issue. As political scientist Walter Russell Mead (channeled by George Will) wrote recently in his blog, greens “failed because they lost touch with the core impetus and values of the environmental movement.” Mead elaborated, “The greens have forgotten where they come from….Environmentalists were skeptics of the One Big Fix.  Science could never capture all the side effects and the unintended consequences.”

My own environmental views were born of what I saw as a journalist covering energy issues and politics. Most of what “the establishment” applauded, I found wanting. In particular, as I learned more and more about the Tennessee Valley Authority, the more skeptical I became of conventional wisdom, left and right. I also learned to hold onto my wallet when I hear the term “consensus.”

On the other hand, a considerable amount of the climate skepticism has been fueled by large, rich business interests, attempting to protect their territory. True, but so what? I’m already tired of the latest wheeze, that the Koch brothers single (or double)-handedly killed climate legislation. Or that anyone who doubts the gospel according to Joe Romm is in the pay of “Big Oil.” It’s not as if the environmental community doesn’t have resources, and didn’t use them, in their failed legislative and public opinion campaigns. Then there is the “blame Obama” mantra. He didn’t do enough. He promised. Whine, whine, whine. Nonsense. Let’s discuss issues.

Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute has the proper post mortum. He told Ezra Klein of the Washington Post recently, “I think the attacks from the greens on the White House and the White House’s response all miss the point. There was no amount of speechifying or arm twisting Obama could have done that would’ve changed that vote significantly. And vice versa, the green groups hired some of the best advertisers and lobbyists and spent $100 million. They didn’t do a bad job. They had arguably the best mobilization environmental groups have ever done in the history of the environmental movement. It was the proposal itself that was impossible for this Congress, and any Congress in recent memory, to pass.”

Where to go from here? Clearly, there’s no chance to resurrect the prior green political agenda. As Shellenberger said, “I think that this is the end of cap-and-trade for a long time. It’s the fourth time it’s failed since 2003. We did a vote count in 2008, where we interviewed green lobbyists about their vote count. We got to about 35. When [Harry] Reid said they couldn’t get to 60, he was putting the best face on it. So I don’t think cap-and-trade is coming back for the next decade.”

I’d suggest that all the interests sit down and start discussing some common ground. There can be no doubt that mankind can affect the global environment, for good and for ill. I would regard the purposeful extinction of the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), at least in the U.S., as a good thing, for example. Unfortunately, I suspect that man-made extinction is impossible.

Global warming might be in the cards. It might be good or bad or irreversible. Chances are there will be winners and losers, as some have been saying for decades, including the late Roger Revelle. There are small steps we can take – remember “no cost, low cost” from the dismal days of DSM? – that are the beginnings of a useful approach to climate warming, but are also reversible if called for. There are policies that make sense in their own right, for saving energy and reducing our impact on the planet, regardless of the state of the global thermometer.

But let’s lose the grandiose, atomic-bomb approach to climate policy, what many have come to call the United Nations model, typified by the failed Kyoto Protocol and the stillborn U.S. cap-and-trade legislation. In the process, let’s lose the circumlocution of “climate change.” If every change that happens to the climate is the result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, then nothing is falsifiable and there is no science there.

I like the approach that Georgia Tech climate scientist Judith Curry is taking. Here’s what she said last month in Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger’s SciGuy blog, commenting on the collapse of the green political agenda: “Frankly I think this is a good thing that it’s fallen apart in the short term so everyone can sit back and reflect a little bit more on what we should be doing — to try and really understand where our common interests lie and maybe get away from the UN Model and understand the unintended consequences of some of the policies people are talking about. There’s some no-brainer things that people can be doing, and I hope some of this can get started. But in terms of these big, huge far-reaching policies … the work that needs to be done is really in the economic and political arena to figure out what actually makes sense to do.”

Of the less-hyperbolic of the greenhouse skeptics, Curry is sympathetic, despite her views on the veracity of the science. “It’s a grassroots effort,” she says. “These are people who are interested, they want to see accountability. They have a certain amount of expertise and they want to play around with climate data. There’s no particularly evil motives behind all this.”

That’s a good place to start.