The more alarming the conclusion the more recognition the work receives, and the greater is the funding. This is why education channels carry so many disaster programs about super volcanoes, asteroid strikes or earthquakes. Since they do not attract private funding, researchers must scare people to get public support. There is a “crisis bias” among these researchers, which creates crisis fatigue in the public.
Finally, society does not allow scientists exclusive control over public policy, even when it deals directly with science itself. For example, we do not give scientists exclusive control over bio-engineering, cloning technology or genetic engineering. After all, scientists told us deep horizon oil drilling was perfectly safe, and we know how that turned out.
None of this means AGW is not a legitimate concern, or that we do not need to reduce our carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the dictatorial attitudes and personal attacks on anyone suggesting we need to think this through make it less likely that anything will get done. No one is willing to compromise when they are called a “flat-earther,” a “holocaust denier” or a “climate criminal.”
Indeed, the entire AGW campaign, beginning with Al Gore and ending with the IPCC and the “Climategate” scientists, is an object lesson in how not to handle a complex public policy issue. It is impossible to build consensus by telling everyone else to sit down, shut up and do what you say.
Attitudes towards AGW can be classified into four categories: skeptics, lukewarmers, warmers and alarmists. Skeptics deny humans have anything to do with recent global warming, and say we can do nothing about it. Lukewarmers believe humans do contribute to global warming, but are unsure how much we contribute to climate change. Warmers believe most of the warming is due to humans, and we need to do something about it. Alarmists believe the worst case scenarios reported from climate simulations and demand we immediately change our lifestyles.
Extremists control the public debate, and they make it personal and completely unproductive. If the lukewarmers and the warmers controlled the debate, we could make some progress. Unfortunately, when the moderates in the scientific community speak, their work is co-opted by the extremists.
For example, the National Academy of Science study, “Advancing the Science of Climate Change,” is a “warmer” document; they clearly think AGW is a serious problem calling for a public response. The specific recommendations they make are for an integrated research program that addresses how we might respond to climate change and to resolve the major uncertainties that persist in climate science. You definitely should read this report, but pay careful attention to what the NAS is actually proposing.
Bob Martin is emeritus professor of economics at Centre College.