Samuelson’s counsel of despair
A column by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post has conservatives all a-twitter — appropriate, I guess, since it gathers all the state-of-the-art conservative talking points on global warming in one place.
Browse around at reactions and the impression you will get above all is that conservatives just don’t take the subject very seriously. They’re looking for some clever arguments so they can move onto other stuff that gets their viscera churning (terrorism, evil liberals, etc.). This headline is typical: "WaPo: Global Warming a Bunch of Bull."
Of course, that’s not what the column says at all. What the column says is that we can’t really do anything about global warming, and any politician who says otherwise is a hypocrite. It advocates despair and surrender.
There are two primary points in the column, and one conclusion that follows from the two points. Let’s take them in order.
The first point is implicit. Samuelson says that even if developed countries cut their emissions, developing countries never will (thus, rising global CO2 is inevitable). Why? Because they want to grow and solve their own problems (poverty, etc.). In other words, fossil fuel use and rising GHG emissions are intrinsic to economic growth. This is absolutely central to conservative reaction to global warming; it’s why they view efforts to fight global warming as attacks on capitalism and economic growth.
But of course, as China, for instance, has already figured out, developing along the fossil-fuel-heavy Western path will mean sure destruction.
The second point is spelled out:
… global warming is an iffy proposition. Yes, it’s happening; but, no, we don’t know the consequences — how much warming will occur, what the effects (good or bad) will be or where. … Global warming is not an automatic doomsday. In some regions, warmer weather may be a boon.
There’s fuzzy language here, leaving the impression that for all we know, global warming will be a wash — some places will be nicer, others won’t. It’s true, of course, that global warming is not an "automatic doomsday." The high end of projected temperature increases (~5.8° C by 2100) would be catastrophic: widespread drought, floods, sea-level rises, possible sudden, nonlinear changes, etc. People might survive this, but no region will consider it a "boon" when the global economy tanks.
The low-end of changes (~1.4° C by 2100) would still bring worse storms, flood, droughts, and spread of disease, with all the concomitant effects on our economy and health. Over the past few decades we’ve experienced a half-degree rise, and just this last week we find that the oceans are acidifying and wildfires are increasing. It’s already costing us. It’s possible that three times that much warming would work out OK, but do we really want to take that bet?
And finally, here’s Samuelson’s real conclusion:
… improved technology is the only practical way of curbing greenhouse gases. … Any technology solution would probably involve some acceptable form of nuclear power or an economic way of removing CO2 from burned fossil fuels. "Renewable" energy (wind, solar, biomass) won’t suffice. Without technology gains, adapting to global warming makes more sense than trying to prevent it. Either way, the Bush administration rightly emphasizes research and development.
This is actually a whole string of unsupported truisms — renewables are dismissed as unrealistic while "acceptable" nuclear power and carbon sequestration are assumed viable — but the overall message to the voting public is: just sit back and wait. Something will come up. Bush is researching things. Everything’s taken care of. Go back to sleep.
[B]y employing technologies that already exist or are under development, the world could be brought onto a much more sustainable energy path. The scenarios show how energy-related C02 emissions can be returned to their current levels by 2050.
Conservatives see the approach of global warming and counsel passivity and despair. We can do better than that, can’t we?