NYT Discovers "Middle" Ground on Climate:

On New Year's Day, the New York Times published an interesting (if long overdue) article pointing out that there is much more to the climate change policy discussions than a debate between "believers" and "heretics." Now, article author Andrew Revkin claims, there is a "third stance" emerging that "challenges both poles of the debate."

They agree that accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases probably pose a momentous environmental challenge, but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old, irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already raging.

"Climate change presents a very real risk," said Carl Wunsch, a climate and oceans expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid." . . .

"Global warming is real, it's serious, but it's just one of many global challenges that we're facing," said John M. Wallace, a climatologist at the University of Washington. "I portray it as part of a broader problem of environmental stewardship — preserving a livable planet with abundant resources for future generations."

The article also notes that some who take this approach -- those who Roger Pielke Jr. calls "nonskeptical heretics" -- face pressure to tailor their public comments for political reasons: "Some experts, though, argue that moderation in a message is likely to be misread as satisfaction with the pace of change.

The article quotes Dr. Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in Britain, "raising the concern that shrill voices crying doom could paralyze instead of inspire."

"I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama," he wrote. "I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory."
Above I say the article is "long overdue" because the real climate debate has, for quite some time, not been over the science but rather over the proper policy response to an uncertain yet significant environmental risk. Indeed, as I have said before, most of those labeled "skeptics" accept that human activities are altering the climate and some (such as Bjorn Lomborg) explicitly accept the conclusions of the IPCC. They are labeled skeptics less for their view of the science than their view of the proper response to the risks of climate change. Lomborg, for instance, accepts the IPCC's scientific assessment, but argues that the resources required to forestall significant cliamte change would be put to better use if used to alleviate other global problems, particularly those related to poverty.

The evidence that human beings are, and will continue to, have an impact on the climate has been strong for quite some time. There is significant uncertainty about what precisely this means (e.g. the effect it will actually have on weather, sea-level, etc.), but little doubt that it will produce signficant environmental changes, some of which will impose significant costs and some of which may provide benefits. There is also little doubt that the distribution of climate change's costs and benefits will be anything but uniform. So, for instance, parts of Canada might benefit from longer growing seasons and milder winter, while low-lying tropical regions are flooded and suffer greater disease outbreaks.

At the same time, we have no clue how to reduce anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases sufficiently so as to stabilize atmospheric concentrations anywhere near present levels. Existing technologies, including projected advances in renewables, nuclear, and other low-to-zero-emission energy sources, can only do so much. Ditto for conservation. The realistic costs of climate change policies approach the magnitude as those of climate change itself, and include significant uncertainties of their own.

The real debate is thus over what sort of insurance policy -- or, more properly, mix of policies -- represents the proper response to the real risk of climate change, and how should the costs of such policies be apportioned. This is a serious an important debate. Unfortunately, it does not get more attention because a fiery believer/skeptic debate over the science creates a simpler "he said/she said" narrative for popular consumption.

For additional reactions to the Revkin piece, see this post at RealClimate, this post at Prometheus, and this post at Gristmill.

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