Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Climate Change & Liberals/Conservatives

While it is always difficult to come to agreement when two sides are far apart on issues, it is still possible to agree on something larger than either might be willing to look at—compromising on vision—and that is the approach taken in this thoughtful article from the BreakThrough Institute.

An excerpt.

“For 20 years, liberals and conservatives have been locked in a debate about the relative seriousness of climate change. Conservatives have either denied that it was happening or played down its significance, while liberals and environmentalists have tended to see it as ecological apocalypse meriting either extreme personal sacrifice or a supposed cost-free regulatory fix.

“That debate is now undergoing a major shift. Conservatives like Jim Manzi, Newt Gingrich and others recognize that humans are affecting the climate and that something should be done about it. Liberals and environmentalists, like Joe Romm and most recently Al Gore, are beginning to recognize the political futility of peddling sacrifice, and have started emphasizing the need to make clean energy cheap. To be sure, both camps are still far apart in their view of global warming, with Romm seeing it as a future hell on earth and Manzi viewing it as little more than a rounding error. But if we fixate on these radically divergent views of the problem we risk missing some signs of agreement over what should be done about it.

“The Model Muddle

“Liberals and conservatives both rely on highly complex climate and economic models to inform their views of what should be done. The problem is not so much that the models are inaccurate as that they must, by their nature, produce a wide range of possible future scenarios. Models thus offer very little certainty upon which to base our actions. Will global warming result in so little damage that it is not worth investing any amount of money in cleaner energy sources? Or will it undermine the basis of human life on earth, which would merit extreme investments and personal sacrifice? Change a single decimal point on one of the hundreds of inter-related ecological or economic inputs -- faster-than-expected emissions from China, melting tundra, diminished albedo, slower rates of deforestation, faster economic growth -- and voila! you've constructed a radically different world.

“One of the largest uncertainties is also the one that will have the largest impact on our ability to deal with the problem: technological innovation. If we bought enough of them, could solar panels one day become cheaper than coal? Could new air capture machines suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it underground so cheaply as to obviate the need to slow emissions?”