If you want to see the conservative punditariat’s most ignorant, flat-footed, intellectually irresponsible position on climate change, you can’t do better than Jonah Goldberg’s insipid column in the L.A. Times. But it’s just a collection of smears and discredited half-truths collected from right-wing blogs, so I won’t encourage you to waste your time on it.

A far more intelligent conservative, and a far more eloquent statement of the conservative position on climate change, can be found in this post from Ross Douthat. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny either.

(Incidentally, both posts focus their ire on Al Gore. We can expect more of that. Particularly on issues on which the merits weigh against them, conservatives love to personalize and demonize, and they made an art form of doing it to Gore back in 2000. Laura Turner makes the point well here.)

Once you strip away the cruft, Douthat’s position is basically this: Global warming may be devastating in the long term, but "the kind of economic reforms necessary to do anything significant about the accumulation of carbon dioxide would be immediately and decisively disastrous." And "very, very few governments are inclined to accept an immediate economic calamity in order to forestall a longer-range crisis that may or may not be worse."

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The problems with this position are fairly obvious. As Ezra Klein puts it, "if there’s a sick patient on your table and you decide surgery might kill ’em, that doesn’t erase the fact that there’s a sick patient on your table." Douthat offers no alternative proposal. If we take him seriously, what he offers is basically nihilism: It’s going to happen, we’ll never do anything to stop it, and Al Gore is a butthead. That’s not exactly a winning position, substantively or politically.

This is where Douthat — and conservatives generally — leave off, but it’s where the meaty argument actually begins.

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Ezra more or less concedes Douthat’s (unsupported) assertion that cutting emissions would be "disastrous." At that point, Ezra’s colleague Matt piped in to say, no, cutting emissions wouldn’t be that hard at all. He quotes John Quiggin saying that reducing CO2 emissions by 60% (what scientists recommend to stabilize climate) would cost us "between 1.5 per cent and 3 per cent of GDP." No problem, right?

Ezra responded by saying, yeah, maybe cutting the requisite emissions in the U.S. is possible, but there’s no way we’ll get China and India to do it.

Look what’s happening: Here you have some of the web’s brightest policy wonks tossing around diametrically opposed assertions on what may be the single most significant question of our time, casually. Oh, cuts would be devastating? OK. Oh, wait, they’d be relatively painless? OK.

Far, far too much time has been spent arguing about whether global warming is happening. The group of people who still think that’s a live question is shrinking and is already basically insignificant.

These are the two questions that need answering:

  • How bad will the effects of climate change be?
  • How much will it cost to cut global GHG emissions by 60%?

Balancing those two will determine our response to global warming. I happen to think that the effects will be awful, and reducing global emissions would be a net economic positive. But I’ll admit I don’t have anything close to an airtight case for either of those (closer for the former than the latter). I don’t have much more than what 90% of people have — assertion. A gut feeling. An educated guess.

These questions will determine how attractive clean coal or nuclear power or biofuels are. They will determine the urgency of land-use reform. They will tell us how likely resource wars and mass refugee flows are. They are the key policy questions of our generation.

The mere existence of global warming gets us nowhere. It only begins the debate. We need to move on to the meatier, more difficult questions it raises.