Hurricane Irene and the Natural Disaster of Fanaticism in the Climate Change Debate

Presidential politics have given media a new reason to cover climate change. By focusing on perceived differences on the issue among Republican candidates (ie Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, etc.), the most recent surge in news coverage misses a very important distinction.

The question at hand is not what role human activity plays in global warming. Most people regardless of political affiliation have already accepted that dynamic. The real question involves the effectiveness of proposed policy solutions at mitigating the potential risks of this phenomenon.

Climate is just one of the uncertainties we will face over the course of the 21st century. And the apocalyptic scenario often deployed by activists to promote radical legislative and regulatory actions to suppress fossil energy use is just one of countless possible futures—and a low probability one at that. Yet, this perspective is often lacking in our political discourse.

Just this weekend, environmental activist Bill McKibben attempted to leverage the pending natural disaster of Hurricane Irene to justify his opposition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline to connect Canada’s oil sands to America’s refineries. Thankfully, New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin was quick to point out:

But McKibben’s effort to use this United States hurricane landfall as a specter of things to come in a greenhouse-heated world doesn’t mesh with the science, which shows a measurable, though subtle, trend in the opposite direction. That’s why I agree with Keith Kloor’s conclusion that this kind of rhetoric is “undermining the legitimacy” of the call to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

As is the case with any hotly contested issue, extreme claims from either side only serve to discredit their cause and alienate a large segment of the population that would be open to finding common ground. Whether it’s misrepresenting extreme weather as judgment against SUV owners or dismissing anyone who questions apocalyptic scenarios as a “skeptic,” these kinds of tactics make for bad science and bad politics as well.

In order to lobby for radical, mandated reductions in carbon fuel use, activists paint a frightening picture of life later this century, which includes famine, drought, sea levels that put coastal areas under water, etc. These events would transpire if temperatures were to rise on the order of 8 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 50 to 100 years. Yet, that would only happen if our climate system showed a higher degree of sensitivity to water vapor in the atmosphere than has been demonstrated by science.

Water vapor is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, and the enhanced warming that some predict takes place because greenhouse gases prevent solar energy from being reflected back into space. This is called positive feedback. Without it, most scientists agree that a doubling of CO2, for example, would lead to an increase of about 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same as we have seen since the start of the 20th century.

Research will ultimately determine whether increases in water vapor cause positive feedback and whether emissions of greenhouse gases (or other factors such as solar activity, ocean currents, and clouds, for instance) have more of an effect on temperature and climate than we currently observe. In the meantime, our leaders shouldn’t be paralyzed by the forecast of dread.

Looking to the last half of this century, one thing is fairly certain. Our world 50 years from now will be much different than it is today thanks to technology, innovation, and human ingenuity. Many things that we take for granted today didn’t exist at the start of the 20th century. Who could have conceived of air conditioning, Internet, space exploration, smart phones, the agricultural revolution, or Americans’ nearly 80-year life expectancy that has taken place over the past five decades?

Technology has changed the world as we know it and will continue to do so.

So instead of focusing on a world that is characterized by deprivation, why not give equal attention to the possibilities for a more positive future and what needs to be done to realize it? By the end of this century, water desalinization or cloud seeding may become commercially viable to deal with drought conditions no matter their cause. The next generation’s Norman Borlaug may make even greater strides in new crops and agricultural technology.

The point of this is not to be Pollyannaish about climate risks. The point is to stress the need for balance—the need to consider all possibilities and trust in human ingenuity. Every day, we are reaching a better understanding of our climate system and any risks that our way of life is causing. And based on that, we’re better able to fashion solutions to climate related problems that do not make us poorer.

In the meantime, the world would be better off if a higher priority was given to the real environmental tragedy of 1.6 billion people who live in deprivation in the developing world. They survive without access to commercial energy or potable water and suffer high disease and mortality rates. We have the knowledge, technology, and capacity to help them achieve a better life. Wouldn’t the world be better solving real problems than hypothetical ones?