With the release of Al Gore’s movie, global warming awareness has gone mainstream and the consensus among environmentalists is that now is the time for drastic action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. On Gristmill, we are witnessing calls to turn combating global warming into a “moral crusade” in order to enlist religious-minded folks and to elevate the issue to a debate about right and wrong conduct. Unfortunately, I think many environmentalists are repeating the mistakes of past environmental campaigns.

Here’s how I see it:

  1. The environmental movement has been characterized by “doom and gloom” campaigns ever since its inception. In fact, the one constant within the environmental movement is that stoking fear (whether warranted or not) has been one of the most effective drivers of environmental policy and membership. (During the 1990s, when the economy was booming, donations to environmental organizations actually decreased, because Bill Clinton, a Democrat supposedly friendly to the environmental movement, was in the White House; as soon as Bush got in office, donations increased due to the fear of Bush’s rule.) Unfortunately, this strategy (again, whether truthful or not) can only go on for so long. The public will only respond to the “sky is falling” so many times before it becomes desensitized to this rhetoric; I am afraid that time has come and we need an entirely new strategy.
  2. The fact is that most people think global warming sounds like a good thing on some conscious or unconscious level. (Who in San Francisco wouldn’t like the average temperature to increase a few extra degrees?) Calls for biodiversity preservation are unlikely to provoke large numbers of people because it is too abstract. Unfortunately, probably the thing people will respond to the most is the increased threats of hurricanes, droughts, and other natural disasters, which brings us back to the problem laid out in point #1.
  3. Now to the even more controversial points. With a very high degree of certainty, we have evidence that the planet is warming and that human activity plays a part. But, we are still very uncertain as to how much the planet is going to warm and how much changing our activities will decrease the prospects of global warming. This is what makes policy prescriptions much more difficult and ambiguous than many environmentalists care to admit; there are a range of answers and scenarios with vastly different costs and benefits. This brings me to the most contentious point of all: it is not 100% clear that doing what we need to do to reduce global warming makes sense. People who make absolute moral claims that global warming is “bad” and “must be stopped” are missing some fundamental truths. For example, what if it turns out that global warming was going to cause the displacement of 50 million people and the loss of 3% of the world’s biodiversity, but cost $10 trillion to avoid, would it be wrong not to act? I’m not so sure. In fact, it might cost a lot less than $10 trillion to relocate those people to safer places and preserve the equivalent amount of biodiversity. The point is that global warming, like all environmental problems, should (at some level) be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. Of course, there are many equity and distributional issues that also need to be addressed, but the point is that declaring global warming a “wrong” doesn’t make any more sense than saying that air pollution is “wrong”; some amount of it be may warranted in exchange for other goods (few people I know of argue for 0% air pollution).
  4. This brings me to the issue of appropriate strategies. I think we are focusing too much on prevention strategies relative to mitigation strategies. Some amount of global warming is already happening and will continue to happen (perhaps a lot). While the myriad efforts at new fuel technologies, carbon sequestration, and efficiency are worthwhile and should have increased government support, we should invest much more in relocation strategies for those in low-lying areas, including engineering technologies to make communities safer from floods and storms, large biodiversity corridors so that animals and plants can migrate as the climate changes, and better strategies to promote economic development (see here). The fact is that rich countries have the wealth already to mitigate most of the adverse effects of global warming, while poor countries do not; helping them get richer will improve their chances of dealing with all sorts of environmental challenges, not just climate change.

I think it is imperative that members of the environmental movement think very carefully about how to plot the strategy forward for climate change policy; that is, if they really believe the stakes are so high.

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