Speaking at the United Nations recently on the subject of climate change, President Obama called it a crisis and told the assembled nations that they must “lead” — whatever that means — in order to solve it. It is highly unlikely that anything useful will come from that gathering, however, because nothing useful has come from any of its predecessors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the last one, held in Copenhagen in 2009, “the worst meeting I’ve been to since eighth-grade student council.”
Why don’t these sessions solve anything? Because they perpetuate the I’m-right-and-you’re-stupid rhetorical tug-of-war that has dominated discussion of the issue ever since it appeared under the name of global warming. Either the planet is hurtling towards total disaster because “deniers” refuse to recognize the evils of greenhouse gas emissions or the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by “alarmists” who want to use it to increase the amount of government intrusion in our lives. This name-calling obscures intelligent analysis of what is actually happening.
Steven Koonan is a computational physicist with 40 years of experience in scientific research. He was undersecretary for science in the Energy Department during Obama's first term. He has written a paper to which the U.N. participants should pay attention.
After the obvious statement that the climate changes on its own — “always has and always will” — he says that human intrusion into the system is “no hoax,” and that its impact “appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.”
Then he makes the key point “… the crucial unsettled scientific question (italics mine) for policy is, ‘How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?’ Answers to that question at the global and regional levels, as well as to equally complex questions of how ecosystems and human activities will be affected, should inform our choices about energy and infrastructure.
“But — here's the catch — those questions are the hardest ones to answer. They challenge, in a fundamental way, what science can tell us about future climates.”
So, a scientist who is clearly not a denier tells us that nature causes climate change as much as human activity does and we really don’t know which one is doing it at any given moment. The rhetoric coming from the U.N. conference would have us believe that every hurricane, flood, drought or tornado that occurs in the future will be our fault. Koonan’s reminder that nature’s role in climate is very much the one whose impact is the hardest to figure out helps explain why actual world temperatures have deviated from computer model predictions for the last 16 years.
Those who convene on this issue must also recognize economic and political realities. Poor countries remain poor because they lack affordable energy. India and China — now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses — may talk a good game on “going green” but they will never adopt an energy policy that would slow their economic growth. At this time of economic sluggishness, neither will any government in either Europe or America. If they did, they would quickly be replaced by angry voters.
Attendees at meetings on climate change will rise above eighth-grade student status when they stop shouting outdated talking points at their critics and concentrate instead on promoting accelerated research on the climate system as a whole, which an expert at the national labs described to me as “hideously complex.” We need computer models that are more accurate and thus more useful in helping develop realistic coping strategies, not more name-calling.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.