The Climatistas are at it again – this time attacking our Independence Day barbecues. After years of nagging Americans about their profligate driving habits, air conditioning and incandescent light bulbs, Brian Palmer goes after cook-outs in a June 30 New York Times op-ed entitled “Fire Up the Grill, Not the Atmosphere.” I wouldn’t mind some additional grilling tips, but Mr. Palmer’s article contains one word that really rubs me the wrong way: atonement.
Let’s review the issue at hand one more time. The Climate Change Hypothesis (CCH) is not that the Earth is warming, but that warming is caused primarily by man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and that that warming will accelerate over time with catastrophic results. The CCH may be true, but the science is by exceedingly weak. First of all, we do not have enough data about natural climate variability to determine whether the warming of the last hundred years is within the bounds of nature’s own fluctuations. Second, the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere would not produce the effects predicted by the CCH. Catastrophic effects require a series of highly questionable assumptions that cloud formation and other variables will all act together to amplify the warming effect. There is no persuasive science in support of these assumptions and some strong contra-indications. We therefore can’t tell whether forcing people to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions will make any difference or not.
I should note that economists have long acknowledged the problem of “externalities” or costs borne by those not party to a transaction. If I buy a Big Mac and throw the wrapping out the window of my car, neither McDonald’s nor I bear the cost of picking up the trash. Government has the right to intervene, in this case by making littering illegal. Other types of pollution can be more of a problem. For example, I pollute the air a little bit when I heat my house by burning fuel oil. It would be unreasonable for government to prohibit home heating, but they can place set standards for furnaces or fuel oil specifications. When industries engage in large-scale pollution, government can regulate or tax or prohibit. Addressing these externalities is a political question resolved through democratic institutions, but in each case we must first know that the activity is actually causing harm. Litter makes a mess of our highways. Burning high-sulfur fuel oil degrades air quality with predictable health effects. The problem with climate change is that, despite all the protestations of the Climatistas, we are not sure if human emissions of carbon dioxide are causing a problem or not. If we don’t understand the problem, we can’t design fixes.
I respect people who live their lives according to principle. I’m not a vegetarian, but many people believe that meat is unhealthy or cruel or environmentally damaging and so avoid it. That’s fine with me. In my opinion, the Toyota Prius is too small, and rather expensive for its size. Few people will earn back the extra cost with their gasoline savings. The Prius, however, is an excellent automobile, and people are welcome to buy one if they wish. It’s not my place to interfere with that decision.
Brian Palmer’s op-ed reveals a different mindset among Climatistas. Atonement is not for scientists or policy wonks but for sinners. Mr. Palmer’s task is not to understand the science of greenhouse gases or how to deal with any environmental impacts they might cause, but how to beg forgiveness for wrong-doing. Sinning and forgiveness are religious matters, and religion is based on faith, not on knowledge. In essence, the religious view of climate change renders any rational discourse impossible. You either believe it or you don’t.
Unfortunately, it’s an easy step from living by one’s sincere beliefs to deciding that other people ought to live by those beliefs too. Proselytizing can be annoying, but it’s basically harmless. When people try to convince me of something, I can accept or reject their reasoning as I please. I maintain my right, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, to the “pursuit of happiness” as I define it. The problem comes when people try to use government to force others to live “correctly”. As Andy Stern, former President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and close friend of president Obama, likes to say, “We use the power of persuasion first. If it doesn’t work, we try the persuasion of power.” This statement is the basic totalitarian sentiment: We can and should force you to do what we want because we know better. Lenin justified his actions based on faith in Marx’s superior knowledge of history. Hitler justified his on his faith in racial superiority. The Climatistas justify theirs on faith in the Climate Change Hypothesis.
In this sense, Mr. Palmer has done us a service by admitting that the CCH is a religious and not a scientific issue. Now all we need to do is resists the impulse of the Climatistas to turn the US into a theocracy.