Sometimes I show up in the old media, too:

An op-ed via The State (Columbia, SC)

Douthat misses his own point on climate change

Ross Douthat’s Tuesday column “The right and the climate,” reveals just how far the global environmental change community has come in its efforts to educate the public on the real challenges posed by climate change — and how far we still have to go. After arguing that climate change is real and a problem (“Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.”), the conservative New York Times columnist says we are probably better off doing nothing for now, and instead fostering economic growth that generates enough wealth to address the problem in the future.

Douthat has been pilloried for trotting out conservative talking points about climate change, but perhaps the problem lies with those of us whose job it is to connect the scientific evidence for climate change with its human impacts. Doing so quickly lays his argument to rest, and points to some of the real questions we must answer.

First, to argue that greater wealth will allow us to address climate change and its associated impacts fails to account for the fact that economic growth is one of the principal drivers of climate change. Even in the United States, where we are becoming more efficient in our use of fossil fuels and therefore in the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit as we grow, our absolute production continues to rise. Douthat’s so-called solution forces us into an ever-escalating race to grow wealth and the economy faster than the rate of climate change.

Several economic assessments of climate change suggest that we will lose this race. Logically, then, the real question about his proposal is how to generate economic growth and wealth without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, the idea that one day we will have enough wealth to address the impacts of climate change misunderstands a great deal of the environmental science that Douthat himself argues is too convincing to ignore. Simply put, people will not be impacted directly through warming temperatures — a few degrees Celsius is well within our tolerance as human beings. However, these temperature changes do have vast, complex effects on the ecosystems we rely on for food, our atmosphere, and amenities such as hiking, fishing and hunting. An extinct species is gone forever, and the loss of that species in an ecosystem will be felt forever in complex, unpredictable ways. No amount of money can fix that. It is willfully optimistic to assume that future wealth will allow us to address these permanent changes when we don’t even know what they will be. So here the real question is how we as a society should proceed into this era of uncertainty. What risks are we willing to take with our future?

Douthat’s column shows that we are halfway to a productive conversation about climate change, its impacts and how to address them. Now we must turn to serious, evidence-based discussions to identify productive, meaningful paths forward.

Edward R. Carr

Associate professor, USC Department of Geography


This got a bit edited down from the original (to be expected), so I am a bit concerned that the central point here got muddy – Douthat fully acknowledges that climate change is a problem, and acknowledges the scientific basis on which we have established this.  But he is still ignoring half of the equation – that the science, and a lot of research built on it, makes clear the fact that the costs of climate change will greatly outweigh any economic benefit from ignoring it now.

We are getting closer on our conversation, but we are not quite there – and it falls to those of us who work on this issue to do more to communicate these issues clearly.