We are seeing more media and discussion on climate change than ever before. This is a very good thing. On the other hand, I often feel as though the discussions are detached from reality. It seems that most of the attention on climate comes down to believers (human activity is having a massive deleterious impact on the Earth’s ability to host human life) and non-believers (climate change is natural, caused by solar variability, etc.). The believers have a narrative that they accept and the non-believers simply have a different narrative. There is remarkably little meaningful dialog.
Scientific consensus is quite often wrong, but it is also the best basis for policy that we have. Every argument that climate scientists are biased is more than offset by the array of obviously-biased voices who are funded by, or otherwise represent, the industries that will be regulated or taxed under policies to limit anthropogenic climate change. The overwhelming evidence and the scientific consensus are that human activity is changing the climate in ways that pose significant risks to humanity and to other forms of life. Does this mean that we have an accurate prediction of how much sea levels will rise in Florida? No, but that’s not the point. The point is that the science suggests that there is a substantial risk and that human activity is the cause. Policy is always made using limited data and science that is uncertain. Do we know exactly how much brain damage lead exposure from paint and gasoline was causing? No, but the evidence was sufficient and the risks were unacceptable so the government enacted policy to remove lead from gas and paint. We need a similarly pragmatic approach to climate policy that reduces carbon emissions.
A key challenge in making climate policy is how to be fair and sensible. A carbon tax, for example, has a problem with being highly regressive because poorer families spend a larger fraction of their incomes on energy that wealthier ones. One solution is to create energy tax credits for lower-income households, but this example demonstrates that carbon taxes will not be as simple as simply adding to the taxes on gasoline. There is also the issue of fairness between developed and developing countries. In the United States and other highly-developed economies, we have reaped the long-term benefits of building our infrastructure with cheap energy. Developing nations will pay more for the same infrastructure if we institute carbon taxes.
The largest hurdle to environmental sustainability is convincing people to sacrifice convenience and comfort today to mitigate the risks posed by climate change. Climate advocate Al Gore’s 10,000+ square foot mansion in Nashville consumes more than twenty times as much energy as the average U.S. home. If Al Gore’s years of study and personal commitment to reducing the threat of climate change do not motivate him to reduce his extravagant carbon footprint, how can we expect that the average American will choose to turn down the AC, eat less red meat, or buy a more fuel-efficient car?
There are, of course, increasing numbers of people who are voting for candidates who promise action on climate change and there is even evidence that meaningful numbers of Europeans are flying less to reduce their carbon footprints. Voting is a powerful tool, but I have come to believe that we are going to see real progress only when people are willing to make changes in their own lives to prioritize sustainability and to be willing to pay the associated costs. Voting for change while ignoring our own choices is, in effect, a statement that we are willing to change only when the law compels us to do so. This stance suggests to others that we don’t believe that the issue of climate change is all that important.