Michael —

You invite me to “ go back to what I wrote originally with fresh eyes and then try again.” Excellent idea. Let me try again, now that I better understand your position. And let me thank you for taking the time to read Niskanen Center’s contribution to the climate debate. Although climate issues are not my number one portfolio at Niskanen, I have, as you have seen by now, published numerous climate-related commentaries there, all of them coming down solidly in favor of aggressive action to deal with the very real threat of climate change.

Let me also say that I agree that proper journalistic balance does not mean giving equal time to Fox News or Heartland or people on that end of the spectrum. The kind of balance I would like to see is not one that just pits one unbalanced source against another, like a cock fight.

Where I think more balance is needed is in giving a more honest portrayal of the degree of uncertainty that persists in the mainstream climate science community, at least as I read it as a nonscientist. I guess I was sort of set off by all those 9’s, but if so, that was because too many climate activists try to exaggerate the degree of agreement and the degree of certainty within the science community. I do not find that helpful. I think not telling the truth about remaining uncertainties only gives openings where the Heartlanders can gain leverage.

Let me take a specific example from the 2018 IPCC 1.5 report, which you cite a couple of times and which has been widely discussed in the mainstream press. One of the key findings of that report is that “ Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” That is certainly a worrisome finding, but how should it be reported?

For example, does IPCC 1.5 justify the headline in the Guardian, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe?” I think not. (BTW, I include the Guardian in the “mainstream” category, I am not citing it as a mirror image of Fox News, which it is not.) Instead, what the IPCC report actually says is that there is a greater than 66 percent probability (that is what “likely” means, if you read the footnotes) that warming will reach 1.5 C sometime between 2030 and 2052. Not quite the same thing as a certainty of catastrophe. Not even quite the same as your own characterization

The UN IPCC 1.5 degree reports make it very clear that we only have until 2030 to reduce global emissions by 55% or we are locked into 2 degrees of warming.”

Instead of “very clear” and “locked in,” what the IPCC report really says is that there is a significant risk of 2 C if we don’t take action soon.

What would actual balanced journalism on this issue look like? Let me point to what I see as a really excellent example: An op-ed in the New York Times a few months ago by Gernot Wagner and Constantine Samaras. The authors explain clearly both what is right and what is wrong about the 12-year “deadline.”

In other writing, including his book “Climate Shock” with the late Martin Weitzman, Wagner makes an eloquent case for climate action based on the very fact that climate science is not capable of giving us certain answers. Instead, we should treat it as a problem in risk management. As the Climate Shock website summarizes it,

If you had a 10 percent chance of having a fatal car accident, you’d take necessary precautions. If your finances had a 10 percent chance of suffering a severe loss, you’d reevaluate your assets. So if we know the world is warming and there’s a 10 percent chance this might eventually lead to a catastrophe beyond anything we could imagine, why aren’t we doing more about climate change right now? We insure our lives against an uncertain future–why not our planet?

The same thing that is true about trends in warming as a whole is true about each detail of policy. Take carbon capture, for example. You say that you have looked CDR and come out of your investigations as a skeptic. Fine, but others are less dismissive. Here is what IPCC 1.5 says:

All pathways use Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), but the amount varies across pathways, as do the relative contributions of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and removals in the Agriculture, Forestry and other Land Use (AFOLU) sector.

That looks to me like at least some of the panel that put the report together think that CDR is more than a scam.

But why should we try to decide this issue in advance? What we need are strong but tech-neutral policies like a carbon tax. If there is some potential in CDR, the incentives inherent in the tax will draw them out. If people who invest in CDR because of those incentives end up losers — as they may — then at least we have tried everything. If they surprise you and come up with some viable technologies, then I think you will be willing to join in the applause along with the rest of us. This is not the kind of issue where it is up to us to pick winners and losers.

Anyhow, that is what I come up with after going back to the beginning. Does this get us any closer?

Written by

Economist, Senior Fellow at Niskanen Center, Yale Ph.D. Interests include environment, health care policy, social safety net, economic freedom.

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