IHS Chemical Week


Global Warming and its Discontents

11:09 AM MST | February 25, 2010 | By VINCENT VALK

It's snowing in New York today – again. Luckily, it does not appear to be snowing much in Washington, or else we may get a repeat of this ridiculous "debate."

Let me be perfectly clear: regardless of what Senator Jim DeMint likes to tweet, a snowstorm does not negate the whole of climate science. Neither, for that matter, do some sloppy scientists.

I was thinking about this while combing through the results of a recent Yale/George Mason University poll on the U.S. public's attitude towards climate change. Essentially, belief in global warming has declined considerably since 2008. The proportion of the public that is "alarmed" about climate changed has nearly halved, while the proportion that is "dismissive" of the idea has more than doubled. There are any number of possible reasons for this – chiefly a faltering economy which, understandably, has overtaken other concerns – but it is still disturbing.

Even more disturbing are some rather inconsistent beliefs about climate change. Apparently, Americans believe that global warming will probably not affect them, but will affect their communities. The public overwhelmingly favors regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, funding renewable energy research, and rebates to offset any cost increases in energy bills. The public expresses considerably less enthusiasm for – and, in most cases, strongly opposes – pretty much anything that would actually pay for these measures, from a small increase in the gasoline tax to higher energy bills. These kinds of logical fallacies, by the way, are a constant of U.S. polling. Americans consistently say they want more government investment in roads, schools and health care, for example, yet consistently oppose tax increases that might pay for those things. They also support nearly all the component parts of the Senate's health care reform package, but somehow oppose the package itself. But I digress.

I've long felt that the best way to sell cap-and-trade, or a carbon tax, to the public is as a form of insurance. While the science behind human-caused climate change is sound, the effects of it are notoriously unpredictable. But isn't it worth a year of GDP growth between now and 2050 to ensure that we avoid a civilization-threatening catastrophe? Even if the chance of that level of catastrophe is one-in-a-thousand, I think most of us would agree that paying a relatively small price to avoid it is worth it. This is a fairly simple and honest argument and one that I do not hear from cap-and-trade or carbon price proponents, at least not in the U.S.

Of course, the other issue with climate change is that you can't really see it. And if the solutions do work, they will have prevented a disaster – opening them up to charges that they were never necessary, even if they were. Economic and financial stimulus measures, which may well have prevented a severe recession from becoming an all-out depression, are currently facing a similar problem. Humans are terrible at dealing with distant and vague risks, even if those risks are plainly real. Stopping climate change, to a certain extent, requires us to do things that run contrary to human nature. That's probably the most difficult challenge.

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