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Who are the 'alarmists' here? Real conservatives value evidence

Blanca Mesa of Miami holds a sign protesting Sen. Marco Rubio's statements on climate change as activists and beachgoers join hands while participating in Hands across the Sand, Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Miami Beach, Fla.
Blanca Mesa of Miami holds a sign protesting Sen. Marco Rubio's statements on climate change as activists and beachgoers join hands while participating in Hands across the Sand, Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Miami Beach, Fla.
Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

As the scientific case for human-caused climate change becomes even more compelling, it would be nice if my fellow political conservatives would try to maintain some credibility about this issue, so that any solutions eventually adopted reflect our values as closely as possible. If two recent op-eds by Robert Samuelson (May 11) and Dan Liljenquist (May 14) are any indication, our prospects continue to dim.

Samuelson at least suggests we adopt “a carbon tax to help finance government and stimulate energy-saving technologies and new forms of non-carbon energy,” but what’s wrong with coupling such a strategy with more immediate action using existing technology? Samuelson claims it would not be “sane” for any government — especially those of developing countries like China and India — to dramatically curtail fossil fuel use because the future benefits are too “uncertain.”

This is an odd position, given that the IPCC recently estimated it would cost a mere 0.06 percent reduction in the annual consumption growth rate, from a baseline of 1.6 - 3.0 percent, to stave off the worst of the problems associated with accelerated climate change in a cost-effective manner. Certainly there are broad uncertainties in the scientific and economic estimates, but almost none of the probability lies in the range for which a “wait and see” approach would be justified.

Liljenquist thinks we should just adapt to the changing climate, relying on the inexhaustible ingenuity of our children and grandchildren to save us. He can’t point to any credible scientific or economic analyses in support, and so he resorts to calling climatologists — not just militant environmental extremists, but tens of thousands of scientists — “Malthusian” “alarmists” and “zealots” peddling “hysteria and hyperbole,” and who “vastly underestimate mankind’s ability to adapt, survive and progress in a changing world.” He claims “the only way” to substantively curb greenhouse emissions is to “eliminate half of the world’s human population and drive the rest back into the Stone Age.”

He can’t produce any important players saying “genocide and devolution are the only antidotes to climate change,” but who needs facts when your overactive imagination can transform thousands of scientists and economists into genocidal Luddite-hippies who hate both humanity and technology? “Sometimes I wonder,” he muses, “if the climate change zealots, who wring their hands over the ever-expanding global population, lament the discovery of crop rotation, nitrogen fertilizer, the internal combustion engine,” etc. Perhaps it should be confusing to Liljenquist why the genocidal Luddite-hippies responsible for the recent major climate reports would provide detailed recommendations for addressing the problem without significantly slowing economic growth. But no, he dismisses all these recommendations because none of them are “practical.” By “practical,” I gather he means that they require absolutely no effort or expense … except from future generations.

Just as Liljenquist fails to address what the vast majority of experts actually say about emissions reduction, he also shows that he has failed to grasp what climate scientists actually say the problem with human-caused climate change is supposed to be. None of them claim there is some magical, “meteorological equilibrium” that must be maintained. The real concern is the rapidity of the projected change, some 50-100 times as fast as the similarly large warming that brought us out of the last ice age. Rapid, sustained change makes adaptation very difficult, even for humans.

So who is being “hysterical” and “alarmist?” On one hand, we have people using all the best scientific, political and economic analyses — complete with estimates of uncertainty and risk — to come up with recommendations on how to solve a pressing problem in the most cost-effective manner. On the other hand, we have self-proclaimed “conservatives,” supposed champions of personal responsibility, neglecting to obtain even a cursory familiarity with the best scholarship on the topic, blaming our inaction on what they assume (without evidence) China will do, extolling the unlimited capacity of humans to solve problems while excusing the present generation from even trying, and shrieking overwrought, nonsensical warnings about what serious climate action will cost.

Some real conservatives, like former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-SC, have proposed excellent, minimally invasive strategies for dealing with climate change, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but we have little chance of these policies being adopted if they continue to be overshadowed by intellectually and morally bankrupt rhetoric.

Barry Bickmore is professor of geological sciences at Brigham Young University, and a county delegate for the Republican Party. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.