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The latest U.N. forecast should remind us that the climate is an immensely complex system.
The report released before last year’s climate conference points to global warming of between two and three degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels, considerably less than the increase of four or even five degrees that was once widely forecast.
We cannot pretend to be certain what it will look like at the end of the century, or how much of any change will be due to human activity, or what the effects of climate change will be. We do know that climate modeling can give some indications as to what may lie ahead, but we also know that the models are by no means infallible (indeed, some argue that they are profoundly flawed). Those who forecast what the climate will do and why (and those who interpret those forecasts) should bear that in mind.
To be sure, a range of between two and three degrees is higher than the 1.5 degrees that those who drew up the Paris Agreement called a dangerous tipping point, but, if the Earth ends up in 2100 within that range, it will be short of the worst-scenarios. Of course, like all the estimates that have preceded them, these numbers could be too optimistic or too pessimistic, and they likely reflect some steps already taken to reduce carbon emissions — but they are another reason for those predicting catastrophe to exhibit a little modesty.
Not that they will. It’s something of a cliché to compare some forms of climate fundamentalism to a religion, but that doesn’t make it any less true. True believers are not famous for changing their minds. Equally, for those convinced that command-and-control is the way to manage an economy, society, or both, the climate crisis — a perpetual Covid — is shaping up well as a battering ram to smash through the defenses that liberal democracy normally puts up against authoritarians on the make.
For our part, we believe in human ingenuity and in our species’ ability to adapt, as well as having a conviction that free markets are the best way of unleashing both. We also think that recognizing the need for trade-offs is often inherent in good policy-making, and so is sound cost-benefit analysis. Wishful thinking is not. Nor is apocalyptic fear-mongering.
We recognize that there will be costs to climate change that cannot be simply dismissed, but they shouldn’t outweigh other considerations, whether economic, political, or even geopolitical; there’s no sense pursuing climate policies that are supposed to deliver a fractionally cooler planet in a half a century while making today’s world more vulnerable to Moscow and Beijing. The same is true of policies that risk significant social and economic damage for little obvious climate gain.
In addressing the possible risks posed by climate change, we should put a priority on spending, such as on improved sea defenses for low-lying cities, that would, in many cases, pay for itself whatever might become of the climate. When it comes to alternative energy, we should push to get the technology right rather than on the installation of hardware that is not ready for prime time. And the discipline of the market — from the cost of insurance to the tastes of the car buyer — should dictate our choices, not the edicts of central planners drunk on their own righteousness.
Above all, we believe that the best way to protect societies from the vicissitudes of the weather and the climate is by wealth creation. To the extent that climate policy inhibits economic growth, it is self-defeating. The richer humanity becomes, the greater our ability to spend what it takes to live with, adapt to, and — who knows — one day accurately model the future of the climate.
Reporting from National Review.