The Real Climate Conundrum is Neither Scientific Nor Political

I suspect that this is a slow day in the climate blogosphere, which affords me the opportunity to write an exploratory post–the type where the blogger doesn’t really know where he or she’s going to end up but since it’s a blog, doesn’t take the time to plot an outline beforehand.

I don’t think the root cause of the climate controversy is scientific. There are two broad theories involved in anthropogenic climate change–the first being the greenhouse gas theory, a theory which is widely accepted by all sides in the climate debate, and the second being the feedback theory that has become labeled sensitivity to a doubling of the concentrations of greenhouse gases. This second theory is not settled at all, with the IPCC offering a very wide range of possible values, so anyone can pick a value that suits their prejudices and politics. This is as true for Lukewarmers as it is for skeptics and alarmists–I’m not trying to say otherwise, although I hope we don’t abuse the ambiguity of sensitivity. I’m just saying that for this important question people can choose a value for sensitivity that gives them comfort or advantage.

I don’t think that the climate controversy is actually political either. I think it is used as a convenient political club to bash opponents on the head, but if there were no climate controversy they would just find another club. Neither individual politicians nor political parties are coherent when they talk about climate change–it’s just a proxy for rooted opposition to the other side of the fence.

Outside the U.S. with its fevered atmosphere, climate change is not really a partisan political issue. Even in America, as recently as 2008 the Republican candidate supported Cap and Trade, as did the Republican House leader.

The true Climate Conundrum is moral. Climate change is a moral issue.

Do future generations have a legitimate claim on our resources? Even to the point where such a claim leaves many living today in poverty and peril? This goes far beyond the  prescriptions that we should leave the campsite cleaner than we found it and this is a moral issue that has largely gone undiscussed.

My first reaction (therefore suspect) is that the inhabitants of the future cannot help today’s poor, hence we are forced to take that as a higher charge. Only after we have addressed their needs can we turn our attention to the future.

Even if my first reaction is sound, that doesn’t give us a free pass with regards to the future and the climate we bequeath to future generations. It only places it in perspective. If the price for reducing emissions is only monetary and born mostly by the richest countries, it may be justifiable. But if the developing world is persuaded that for the sake of the grandchildren of rich and poor alike that they should leave large numbers of people in penury, cooking with dung over an open stove, then I think the future will not just be astonished at our decisions, they will condemn us in the way we judge slave owners of the past.

I recognize that there are other moral positions that can be taken. I’d love to see them simply expressed. Perhaps my readers can bring them before me.

Merry Christmas!

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2 responses to “The Real Climate Conundrum is Neither Scientific Nor Political

  1. For me the moral question is how can a movement so divorced from the truth, and proven to be so time after time still have any standing with allegedly wise and enlightened people?

  2. Merry Christmas to you, Tom.

    We absolutely have a moral obligation to strive to leave the world better than we found it. But we can not do that in all respects. We have no choice but to use resources and some of those will be depleted. So we must make up for it by expanding other resources. And, of course, we should not squander or wantonly destroy resources.

    People are an important resource and poverty is a huge waste of that resource. When we alleviate poverty, we do not merely alleviate suffering in this generation. We also create something for future generations by freeing people to be creative and productive. So by addressing the needs of the poor in a sustainable manner, we are, in a very important sense, attending to the future.

    Another resource that we can leave better than we found it is a dynamic, functioning economy. The economy is not money; it is what provides for our needs (food, energy, housing healthcare). On the global level, there is not such thing as “purely monetary” since money is nothing in itself; it is only a means of transferring what we produce.

    A stable, free society is also something we can leave to our descendants so that they have the flexibility to deal with the challenges they will face. If we constrain society within narrow ideological bounds, we will be degrading what we pass on to the future.

    So yes, climate change is a moral issue. I think people on both sides get that. But it is not obvious which side is the moral one and which is immoral, although both sides are convinced they know.

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