The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a report this week that, Predicts Dire Threats for People, Including Food, Water Shortages. Who would have thought? I mean, other than pretty much everyone in the field.
Since I was a climate scientist from roughly 1990 to 1998, one thing is especially clear to me. The predicted changes to the earth’s climate at that time have turned out to be conservative. The climate is getting much worse much faster than we had thought. We are so used to economic forecasts that tend to be much more drastic than what the truth turns out to be. A good example: Social Security projections. But with climate change, it has been the opposite. And the terrible thing is that while economic problems can be quickly fixed, global environmental problems cannot.
I keep coming back to the issue of uncertainty and danger. When it comes to the dangers of inflation, conservatives are all over it. And again: inflation can be fixed. And fast. But even if there were a small chance that humans are changing the climate, we would normally be concerned about it. It would be the same as a large asteroid hitting the earth: unlikely but catastrophic. So why don’t conservatives want to do anything, even if they think it probably isn’t happening?
Of course the truth is that it doesn’t work that way. We know the earth is heating. Conservatives have no real opinion on the science. But what they do have an opinion on is that the solutions for addressing global warming are things that they are committed to be against. What’s more, American conservatives have what can only be termed a mystical belief that any problem can be fixed with some technological innovation.
The sad thing is that they are half right. Technology is critical in solving the problem. But it should be solving the problem now. (Actually, it should have been solving it forty years ago, but I’ll leave that.) We all know that fossil fuels have great externalities that are not factored into the price of a gallon of gas. If the costs associated with a warmer world were factored into the price of gas, other (cleaner) fuel sources would be competitive. This is the idea of “cap and trade.” If gas cost a dollar more per gallon, there would probably be an order of magnitude more money going to investments in clean technologies.
So we are left with a world that is heating rapidly. We have a conservative movement that is determined to not see what’s going on. And in the end, when whole islands disappear beneath the ocean, when drought plagues this country’s farm regions, when extreme economic problems occur because of global warming, the conservative movement will give us a great big Rick Perry response, “Oops!” But it won’t matter in the future. Conservatives will go on ignoring any facts that conflict with their ideology. And roughly half the people will continue to vote for them. That’s the story of America: an ever repeating, “Oops!”