A trip there changed my
mind about climate
change while reinforcing
my belief that markets,
not government, provide
A trip there changed my
mind about climate
change while reinforcing
my belief that markets,
not government, provide
ILULISSAT, Greenland — On a clear day in August, a helicopter set me and a few companions down on the northern end of the Jakobshavn Glacier in Western Greenland, about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The ground under our feet seemed almost lunar: gray silt and dust, loose rocks and boulders, and, at the edge of the glacier’s face, mud so deep it nearly ate my boots. To the south, the calving front of the glacier known in Greenlandic as Sermeq Kujalleq periodically deposited enormous slabs of ice, some more than 100 feet high, into the open water.
I asked the pilot to give me a sense of how much the glacier had retreated since he had been flying the route. He pointed to a distant rocky island in the middle of the fjord.
“That’s where the glacier was in 2007,” he said.
Over the course of the 20th century, the Jakobshavn Glacier retreated about 10 to 15 kilometers. Over just the next eight years, it retreated about the same amount, according to the oceanographer Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Later the front advanced a little — a function of complex dynamics partly involving ocean currents — before resuming its retreat.
For anyone who has entertained doubts about the warming of the planet, a trip to Greenland serves as a bracing corrective. Flying low over the vast ice sheet that covers most of the island, I immediately noticed large ponds of cerulean meltwater and dozens of fast-flowing streams rushing through gullies of white ice and sometimes disappearing into vertical ice caverns thousands of feet deep. Such lakes, scientists report, have become far more common over the last two decades, occurring earlier in the year at higher elevations. Last year, it even rained at the highest point of the ice sheet, some 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. That’s a first since record keeping began in the 1980s.
Closer to the coast, at the point where the sheet approaches the darkly colored mountains that ring the island, lies a distinctive, beige trimline of barren earth, ranging in width from hundreds to thousands of meters. Like the bathtub rings in the depleted lakes and reservoirs of the American West, it shows where the ice once reached, and how far it has receded. History also records that Greenland’s great 19th-century explorers — men like Fridtjof Nansen of Norway and Robert Peary of America — had to climb steep glacial walls merely to get onto the sheet itself. Now it is easy to spot places where the ice meets the dry land on flat ground.
And then there’s the testimony of the market.
In the coastal town of Ilulissat, I had dinner with Bo Møller Stensgaard, a geologist and the C.E.O. of Bluejay Mining, which plans to mine for copper, nickel, cobalt, zinc and ilmenite.
The receding of the ice sheet has opened additional land for exploration, Stensgaard said, and warmer weather has lengthened the season when ships can travel to the island without the risk of being frozen in. “I can put people in the field longer,” he added,
Having spent long months in tents doing geological fieldwork, he sees the transformation not just as an entrepreneur.
“I’ve seen glaciers disappear completely,” he said. “I’ve seen starving polar bears because of disappearing sea ice. These are personally disturbing changes.”
But, since the minerals he hopes to mine are critical for any future green-energy transition, climate change is creating opportunities in Greenland to address the reason it is melting.
For years, I saw myself not as a global-warming denier (a loaded term with its tendentious echo of Holocaust denial) but rather as an agnostic on the causes of climate change and a scoffer at the idea that it was a catastrophic threat to the future of humanity.
It’s not that I was unalterably opposed to the idea that, by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, modern civilization was contributing to the warming by 1 degree Celsius and the inches of sea-level rise the planet had experienced since the dawn of the industrial age. It’s that the severity of the threat seemed to me wildly exaggerated and that the proposed cures all smacked of old-fashioned statism mixed with new-age religion.
Hadn’t we repeatedly lived through previous alarms about other, allegedly imminent, environmental catastrophes that didn’t come to pass, like the belief, widespread in the 1970s, that overpopulation would inevitably lead to mass starvation? And if the Green Revolution had spared us from that Malthusian nightmare, why should we not have confidence that human ingenuity wouldn’t also prevent the parade of horribles that climate change was supposed to bring about?
I had other doubts, too. It seemed hubristic, or worse, to make multitrillion-dollar policy bets based on computer models trying to forecast climate patterns decades into the future. Climate activists kept promoting policies based on technologies that were either far from mature (solar energy) or sometimes actively harmful (biofuels).
Expensive efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and North America seemed particularly fruitless when China, India and other developing countries weren’t about to curb their own appetite for fossil fuels. There was also a millenarian fervor that bothered me about climate activism, with its apocalyptic imagery (the Statue of Liberty underwater) and threats of doom unless we were willing to live far more frugally.
That was my frame of mind when, in April 2017, I wrote my first column for The Times, “Climate of Complete Certainty.” The blowback was intense. Climate scientists denounced me in open letters; petitions were circulated demanding that I be fired. The response mainly hardened my conviction that climate activists were guilty of precisely what I charged them with: intellectual self-certainty that is often a prescription for disaster.
Among the signatories of one petition was an oceanographer, John Englander, who runs an educational and advocacy group, the Rising Seas Institute. Two years later, on a visit to New York, he wrote me out of the blue and asked to meet. Unlike most of my detractors, his note was so cordial that it seemed churlish to say no. We met the next day.
Englander is a trim, affable and eloquent man of 72 who once ran the Cousteau Society and reminds me of a bearded Patrick Stewart, albeit with an American accent. His pitch was simple: The coastline we have taken for granted for thousands of years of human history changed rapidly in the past on account of natural forces — and would soon be changing rapidly and disastrously by man-made ones. A trip to Greenland, which holds one-eighth of the world’s ice on land (most of the rest is in Antarctica) would show me just how drastic those changes have been. Would I join him?
Again, it seemed churlish to say no (though the pandemic would delay my trip by two years). More to the point, if my main objection to the climate activists was my impression of their overweening certitude, didn’t it behoove me to check my own? Where — except in the risk of changing my mind — was the harm in testing my views?
But we need to recognize
clean energy’s limitations.
But we need to
recognize clean energy’s
From a jetliner, the most striking features of Greenland seem to be its vastness and its blankness, which put me in mind of a line from Robert Frost’s poem “Desert Places”: “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow/With no expression, nothing to express.” It was only when I got to the sheet itself that I realized the line could not be less apt. Trapped in the whiteness was a story about the world’s distant past and potential future.
Greenland is about the size of Alaska and California combined and, except at its coasts, is covered by ice that in places is nearly two miles thick. Even that’s only a fraction of the ice in Antarctica, which is more than six times as large. But the Arctic is warming at nearly four times the global average, meaning Greenland’s ice also poses a nearer-term risk because it is melting faster. If all its ice were to melt, global sea levels would rise by some 24 feet. That would be more than enough to inundate hundreds of coastal cities in scores of nations, from Jakarta and Bangkok to Copenhagen and Amsterdam to Miami and New Orleans.
But just how fast is Greenland’s ice melting right now? Is this an emergency for our time, or is it a problem for the future?
Measuring ice loss on scales so vast is no easy task, since Greenland, like a spendthrift billionaire, is both constantly accumulating and shedding almost unfathomable quantities of ice over long spans of time. But scientists have been drilling ice-core samples from Greenland for decades, giving them a very good idea of climatic changes stretching back thousands of years. Better yet, a pair of satellites that detect anomalies in Earth’s gravity fields have been taking measurements of the sheet regularly for nearly 20 years, giving scientists a much more precise idea of what is happening.
The data shows unmistakably that Greenland’s ice is not in balance. It is losing far more than it is gaining.
From April 2002 to July 2022, Greenland has lost more than 5,000 gigatons of ice to the ocean
Ice mass change
relative to 2002
Ice mass change
relative to 2002
In Copenhagen before my departure for Greenland, I chatted with Liam Colgan, a Canadian research climatologist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. “We haven’t had a good positive mass balance year since the late 1990s,” he told me in a follow-on email when I asked him to explain the data for me. The losses can vary sharply by year. The annualized average over the past 30 years, he added, is 170 gigatons per year. That’s the equivalent of about 5,400 tons of ice loss per second. That “suggests that Greenland ice loss has been tracking the I.P.P.C. worse-case, highest-carbon-emission scenario.” (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the U.N. body that assesses climate change.)
Still, it’s hard to forecast with any precision what that means. “Anyone who says they know what the sea level is going to be in 2100 is giving you an educated guess,” said NASA’s Willis. “The fact is, we’re seeing these big ice sheets melt for the first time in history, and we don’t really know how fast they can go.”
His own educated guess: “By 2100, we are probably looking at more than a foot or two and hopefully less than seven or eight feet. But we are struggling to figure out just how fast the ice sheets can melt. So the upper end of range is still not well known.”
On the face of it, that sounds manageable. Even if sea levels rise by eight feet, won’t the world have nearly 80 years to come to grips with the problem, during which technologies that help us mitigate the effects of climate change while adapting to its consequences are likely to make dramatic advances? Won’t the world — including countries that today are poor — become far richer and thus more capable of weathering the floods, surges and superstorms?
But we’ve gotten better at
mitigating climate disasters.
But we’ve gotten
better at mitigating
Englander isn’t at all sanguine. The average rate at which sea level is rising around the world, he estimates, has more than tripled over the past three decades, to five millimeters a year from 1.5 millimeters. That may still seem minute, yet as the world learned during the pandemic, exponential increases have a way of hitting hard.
“When something is on a straight line or a smooth curve, you can plot its trajectory,” Englander said. “But sea level, like earthquakes and mudslides, is something that happens irregularly and can change rather quickly and surprise us. The point is, you can no longer predict the future by the recent past.”
Another major wild card is Antarctica, where the average rate of ice mass loss is more than 150 gigatons a year. Shortly after I returned from Greenland, a glacier in West Antarctica called Thwaites, roughly the size of Florida, caught the world’s attention when a study suggested it was, according to a co-author, Robert Larter of the British Antarctic Survey, “holding on today by its fingernails.”
Or was that alarmist? In The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, where I used to work, the theoretical physicist Steven Koonin, a former under secretary for science in the Obama administration’s Energy Department, cast doubt on the threat from Thwaites in a voice that could have once been mine. He also thinks the risks associated with Greenland’s melting are less a product of human-induced global warming than of natural cycles in North Atlantic currents and temperatures, which over time have a way of regressing to the mean.
“Much climate reporting today highlights short-term changes when they fit the narrative of a broken climate but then ignores or plays down changes when they don’t, often dismissing them as ‘just weather,’” he wrote in February.
Another climate nonalarmist is Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. I call Pielke a nonalarmist rather than a skeptic because he readily acknowledges that the challenges associated with climate change, including sea-level rise, are real, serious and probably unstoppable, at least for many decades.
But that is also the source of his (relative) optimism. “If we have to have a problem,” he told me when I reached him by phone, “we probably want one with a slow onset that we can see coming. It’s not like an asteroid coming from space.”
Among Pielke’s areas of expertise is the analysis of long-term trends in weather and climate-related disasters. Even as the nominal cost of hurricanes, floods, fires and droughts has grown, the economic impact of these disasters relative to the overall size of the economy continues to fall, a function of better forecasting, infrastructure, planning and responsiveness when disaster strikes — all of which, in turn, are the result of the massive increase in wealth the world has enjoyed in the past century.
“Since the 1940s, the impact of floods as a proportion of U.S. gross domestic product has dropped by 70 percent-plus,” Pielke said. “We see this around the world, across phenomena. The story is that fewer people are dying and we are having less damage proportional to G.D.P.”
A considerable amount of data bears Pielke out. In the 1920s, the estimated average annual death toll from natural catastrophes around the globe averaged more than 500,000 a year. The 1931 China floods alone killed as many as four million people not only through drowning but also by exposure, disease and famine. A more recent example, the 1970 Bhola cyclone, killed as many as half a million people in what is now Bangladesh.
In the 2010s, the annual average death toll was below 50,000 — a tenth of what it was a century ago. Hurricane Ian, among the strongest storms ever to hit Florida, had a death toll of at least 119, a small fraction of the 8,000 believed killed by the Great Galveston hurricane of 1900
Even the poorest countries, while still unacceptably vulnerable, are suffering far fewer human and economic losses to climate-related disasters.
Global warming is real and getting worse, Pielke said, yet still it’s possible that humanity will be able to adapt to, and compensate for, its effects.
The death rate from natural disasters has fallen globally
Average number of deaths per 100,000 people, by decade
Note: Natural disasters include all geophysical, meteorological and climate events like earthquakes, volcanic activity, landslides, drought, wildfires, storms and flooding.
Or maybe not. A few years ago, I would have found voices like Koonin’s and Pielke’s persuasive. Now I’m less sure. What intervened was a pandemic.
Just as I had once scoffed at the idea of climate doom, I had also, for almost identical reasons, dismissed predictions of another catastrophic global pandemic on a par with the 1918-20 influenza outbreak. After all, hadn’t we pushed through previous alarms involving Ebola, SARS, MERS and vCJD (mad cow disease) without immense loss of life? Hadn’t virology, epidemiology, public hygiene, drug development and medicine all come a long way since the end of World War I, rendering comparisons with past pandemics mostly moot?
That’s what I thought until the spring of 2020, when, along with everyone else, I experienced how swiftly and implacably nature can overwhelm even the richest and most technologically advanced societies. It was a lesson in the sort of intellectual humility I recommended for others and began to realize I could use more of myself.
It was also a lesson in thinking about risk, especially those in the category known as high-impact, low-probability events that seem to be hitting us with such regularity in this century: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the tsunamis of 2004 and 2011, the mass upheavals in the Arab world that began with a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation.
Here were some questions that gnawed at me: What if the past does nothing to predict the future? What if climate risks do not evolve gradually and relatively predictably but instead suddenly soar uncontrollably? How much lead time is required to deal with something like sea-level rise? How do we weigh the risks of underreacting to climate change against the risks of overreacting to it?
I called Seth Klarman, one of the world’s most successful hedge-fund managers, to think through questions of risk. While he’s not an expert on climate change, he has spent decades thinking deeply about every manner of risk. He’s also one of the rare people with a capacity to change his mind — including, he readily acknowledges, about climate risk. “I’ve talked to so many experts and seen so much evidence,” he told me over Zoom, “I’m convinced the climate is changing, and addressing climate change has become a philanthropic priority of mine.”
“If you face something that is potentially existential,” he explained, “existential for nations, even for life as we know it, even if you thought the risk is, say, 5 percent, you’d want to hedge against it.”
“One thing we try to do,” he said, “is we buy protection when it’s really inexpensive, even when we think we may well not need it.” The forces contributing to climate change, he noted, echoing Englander, “might be irreversible sooner than the damage from climate change has become fully apparent. You can’t say it’s far off and wait when, if you had acted sooner, you might have dealt with it better and at less cost. We have to act now.”
In other words, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s particularly true if climate change is akin to cancer — manageable or curable in its earlier stages, disastrous in its later ones.
For Klarman, the simplest and most obvious climate hedge is a carbon tax. By “raising the price of oil, gas and coal to make alternative energy more economically attractive,” he said, “capitalists will be incentivized to act.”
Klarman recognizes that such a tax is easier said than done because, if it’s enacted by only a few nations, it becomes more of a form of virtue signaling than a serious climate change policy. Carbon taxes also tend to impose their burdens inequitably, favoring city dwellers over exurban and rural ones, knowledge businesses over manufacturers.
There’s a reason Barack Obama rejected a carbon tax, knowing it could be deeply unpopular among voters, and why France’s carbon tax sparked the “yellow vest” public revolt that has energized the far right.
As I’ve always believed, knowing there is grave risk to future generations — and expecting current ones to make immediate sacrifices for it — defies most of what we know about human nature. So I began to think more deeply about that challenge, and others.
But we need to accept economic
growth as a benefit.
But we need to
accept economic growth
as a benefit.
When I had dinner with Stensgaard, the mining executive, he mentioned a statistic that stunned me. For the world to achieve the net-zero goal for carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency, we will have to mine, by 2040, six times the current amounts of critical minerals — nickel, cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, graphite, chromium, rare earths and other minerals and elements — needed for electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels. And we will almost certainly have to do it from sources other than Russia, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other places that pose unacceptable strategic, environmental or humanitarian risks.
To bring carbon emissions to net zero, the world needs significantly more minerals
Global demand for minerals like copper, nickel, lithium and graphite, by type of clean energy
need in 2040
0.4 million tons of minerals
The I.E.A. estimates that the world will need three times as many minerals for it’s electricity networks in 2040 to meet net zero.
need in 2040
Electric vehicles and batteries
0.4 million tons of minerals
The I.E.A. estimates that the world will need three times as many minerals for it’s electricity networks in 2040 to meet net zero.
Source: International Energy Agency
That should be great news for people like Stensgaard — provided Greenlanders are willing to go along. Across the iceberg-strewn bay from where we dined lies Disko Island, twice the size of Long Island and home to around 1,000 people. According to Stensgaard, it is believed to contain 12 million to 16 million tons of nickel. To put that figure in perspective, Stensgaard told me that according to one estimate, the Norilsk nickel mine in Russia, one of the largest in the world, has produced about 8.3 million tons since the 1940s.
A world committed to net zero will need many more Disko Islands to supply its “clean” energy needs. I put the words “clean” in quotation marks because the term is a misnomer. As in everything else in life, so too with the environment: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Whether it’s nuclear, biofuels, natural gas, hydroelectric or, yes, wind and solar, there will always be serious environmental downsides to any form of energy when used on a massive scale. A single industrial-size wind turbine, for instance, typically requires about a ton of rare earth metals as well as three metric tons of copper, which is notoriously destructive and dirty to mine.
Just as significantly, as I’ve long believed, no “clean energy” solution will easily liberate us from our overwhelming and, for now, inescapable dependence on fossil fuels.
But we need solutions that
ally with human nature.
But we need
solutions that ally with
Nobody brings the point home better than Vaclav Smil, the Canadian polymath whose most recent book, “How the World Really Works,” should be required reading for policymakers and anyone else interested in a serious discussion about potential climate solutions.
Many people tend to think of fossil fuels mostly in terms of transportation, electrical generation and heating. But how often do we consider the necessity of fossil fuels in the production of nitrogen fertilizer, without which, Smil noted, “it would be impossible to feed at least 40 percent and up to 50 percent of today’s nearly eight billion people”? It’s difficult to imagine modern life without plastics, made mainly from the hydrocarbons ethylene and propylene, or steel, made with coking coal and natural gas, or cement or asphalt.
Some critics respond to Smil’s arguments with a type of heroic optimism that borders on magical thinking. Why, they ask, can’t we do more to grow our food organically and distribute and consume it locally? The only way we could do that and make a meaningful difference for the climate is if millions of us returned to farming, while accepting a world that can feed far fewer people. Or they cheer investments in wind and solar power without adequately considering that merely increasing the supply of renewable energy does very little to diminish a continued overall demand for fossil fuels, because we have yet to solve the intermittence problem: The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and we haven’t figured out how to store extra energy at the necessary scale.
The poster child for this kind of magical thinking is Germany, which undertook a historic Energiewende — “energy revolution” — only to come up short. At the turn of the century, Germany got about 85 percent of its primary energy from fossil fuels. Now it gets about 78 percent, a puny reduction, considering that the country has spent massive sums on renewables to increase the share of electricity it generates from them.
What went wrong? Many things, not least Angela Merkel’s abrupt decision to shut down all of Germany’s nuclear power plants right after the Fukushima disaster of 2011. That forced Germany to lean more heavily on coal, foreign oil and gas. Now Germany faces a winter with the prospect of uncertain energy supplies from its former partners in Moscow.
Things could turn a corner once scientists finally figure out a technical solution to the energy storage problem. Or when governments and local actors get over their NIMBYism when it comes to permitting and building a large energy grid to move electricity from Germany’s windy north to its energy-hungry south. Or when thoughtful environmental activists finally come to grips with the necessity of nuclear energy — one of the few energy sources, along with hydroelectric power, that combine reliability, energy density and no direct carbon emissions.
Till then, even as I’ve come to accept the danger we face, I think it’s worth extending the cancer metaphor a little further: Just as cancer treatments, when they work at all, can have terrible side effects, much the same can be said of climate treatments: The gap between an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment remains dismayingly wide. The problem has become clearer to me; the solution hasn’t.
But we need to avoid
But we need to avoid
Maybe, I realized, in assessing my newfound concerns about climate change, my long-held beliefs might provide a solution — look to the market.
The way we’ve dealt with other vast and persistent problems provides some lessons.
For many decades, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies, foreign and domestic, pumped trillions of dollars into some of the world’s poorest countries, with ingenious development schemes that fell apart on contact with local realities. The developing world got stuck in debt traps, aid-fueled corruption and debilitating cycles of dependency.
Only when countries like Vietnam and China turned to a different model, of largely bottom-up, market-driven development, did hundreds of millions of people get lifted out of destitution.
Or consider another remarkable fact noted by Smil: In the United States, the difference between total water consumption in 1965 and 2015 is less than 4 percent. In the same span of time, population grew by more than 60 percent.
Laws, regulations and growing environmental awareness played important roles. So did increasing urbanization: More people living in apartments means fewer lawns that need to be watered.
But the most important transformation has come in agriculture, which uses about 70 percent of the world’s freshwater supply.
Farmers gradually adopted sprinkler and drip irrigation systems, rather than more wasteful flood irrigation, not to conserve water but because the technology provided higher crop yields and larger profit margins.
But the market, not the state,
will solve the problem.
But the market,
not the state, will solve
Water shortages “will spur a revolutionary, aggressive approach to getting rid of flood irrigation,” said Seth Siegel, the chief sustainability officer of the Israeli AgTech company N-Drip. “Most of this innovation will be driven by free-market capitalism, with important incentives from government and NGOs.”
Despite noble intentions, climate-change action has too often involved top-down plans with grandiose ambitions and poor execution.
There was a time when Al Gore was emphatically in favor of ethanol, support that George W. Bush later made his own through the 2005 Renewable Fuel Standard. It is now widely acknowledged to be an unmitigated failure, costing billions in regulatory compliance, but unkillable because of its popularity with farm-state politicians. Cap-and-trade systems were once touted as a market-friendly way to control carbon dioxide emissions. Yet from Europe to California to the agencies of the U.N., bureaucrats and industry have consistently found ways to game or corrupt the trading of emissions permits. The 2015 Paris Agreement that the Biden administration rejoined with such fanfare sets highly ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reductions that burnish the environmental credentials of the governments that sign it. But the agreement has no enforcement mechanism, and the idea that countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and India (which is growing more — not less — dependent on coal) are going to meet their stated emissions targets is fanciful to the point of absurdity.
Yet meaningful environmental progress has been made through market forces. In this century, America’s carbon dioxide emissions across fuel types have fallen to well below 5,000 million metric tons per year, from a peak of about 6,000 million in 2007, even as our inflation-adjusted G.D.P. has grown by over 50 percent and total population by about 17 percent.
Renewables, particularly wind power, played a role. So did efficiency mandates.
Yet the biggest single driver in emissions reductions from 2005 to 2017 was the switch from coal to natural gas for power generation, since gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide as coal. This, in turn, was the result of a fracking revolution in the past decade, fiercely resisted by many environmental activists, that made the United States the world’s largest gas producer. As with nuclear power, fracking carries real environmental risks (including methane emissions) that can’t be ignored. But anyone interested in useful solutions that significantly reduce emissions without incurring huge costs needs to not make the perfect the enemy of the good.
In the long run, we are likelier to make progress when we adopt partial solutions that work with the grain of human nature, not big ones that work against it. Sometimes those solutions will be legislative — at least when they nudge, rather than force, the private sector to move in the right direction. But more often they will come from the bottom up, in the form of innovations and practices tested in markets, adopted by consumers and continually refined by use. They may not be directly related to climate change but can nonetheless have a positive impact on it. And they probably won’t come in the form of One Big Idea but in thousands of little ones whose cumulative impacts add up.
On my last night in Greenland I took an evening boat ride through the enormous icebergs that had pushed their way out of the Ilulissat Icefjord and were now beginning to float free in the deep waters of Disko Bay. It is generally believed that one such iceberg made its way from the bay to a spot in the North Atlantic where it met the R.M.S. Titanic on the night of April 14, 1912, and sank it. It’s easy to get carried away with a metaphor, but it was hard not to think that Greenland could produce a similarly awful surprise, on a vastly greater scale, for an overconfident civilization that can’t bring itself to prepare adequately for the unthinkable moment when it could suddenly founder.
Except we are not that civilization.
The problem with our civilization isn’t overconfidence. It’s polarization, paralysis and a profound lack of trust in all institutions, including the scientific one (another pandemic-era lesson). Devising effective climate policies begins with recognizing the reality of the social and political landscape in which all policy operates. Some thoughts on how we might do better:
1) Engagement with critics is vital. Insults and stridency are never good tools of persuasion, and trying to cow or censor climate skeptics into silence rarely works. Englander got a lot further with me by saying, “Let’s talk,” than by signing a letter saying, in effect, “Shut up.” I too might have spared myself the outraged reception to my first column if it hadn’t been preceded by the name-calling of my old columns — such as when I called climate activists “a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate.”
2) Separate facts from predictions and predictions from policy. Global warming is a fact. So is the human contribution to it. So are observed increases in temperature and sea levels. So are continued increases if we continue to do more of the same. But the rate of those increases is difficult to predict even with the most sophisticated computer modeling. The scientific establishment would do more to enhance trust if it communicated what it isn’t sure of — like the relation between climate change and specific extreme weather events — as much as what it is. It would enhance it even further if climate scientists did not use the authority of their field to push for policies whose economic, political and social implications they might not fully understand.
3) Don’t allow climate to become a mainly left-of-center concern. One reason the topic of climate has become so anathema to many conservatives is that so many of the proposed solutions have the flavor, and often the price tag, of old-fashioned statism. But climate is a universally shared good and ought to be a truly common interest. Conservatives can do a lot more to develop their own set of realistic policy prescriptions (for instance, expedited permitting and tax breaks for next-generation nuclear energy). But first, many of them have to be brought around, as I was this year, about the need for action.
The conservative movement
needs to set an example for its children
and prepare for the future.
movement needs to
set an example
for its children and
prepare for the
4) Be honest about the nature of the challenge. Talk of an imminent climate catastrophe is probably misleading, at least in the way most people understand “imminent.” A continual drumbeat of alarm may do more to exhaust voters than it will to rouse them. A more accurate description of the challenge might be a “potentially imminent tipping point,” meaning the worst consequences of climate change can still be far off but our ability to reverse them is drawing near. Again, the metaphor of cancer — never safe to ignore and always better to deal with at Stage 2 than at Stage 4 — can be helpful.
5) Be humble about the nature of the solutions. The larger the political and financial investment in a “big fix” response to climate change on the scale of the Energiewende, the greater the loss in time, capital and (crucially) public trust when it doesn’t work as planned. Sometimes it pays to think small. As Smil noted, we can also do a lot of good by requiring triple-pane windows and proper insulation to make homes that are often likely to stand for 100 years vastly more energy efficient in cold winters and hot summers. A shift away from S.U.V.s — the ubiquity of which is a perverse outgrowth of 1970s-era fuel efficiency standards that created exemptions for light trucks — would be another quiet but major advance.
6) Begin solving problems our great-grandchildren will face. Start with sea-level rise: We cannot move Miami or Kolkata anytime soon, if ever. But we can act immediately to preserve more of our shoreline from further development and urbanization. We can also stop providing incentives for building in flood-prone areas by raising the price of federal flood insurance to reflect the increased risk more accurately.
7) Stop viewing economic growth as a problem. Industrialization may be the leading cause of climate change. But we cannot and will not reverse it through some form of deindustrialization, which would send the world into poverty and deprivation. Instead, economic growth should be seen as an ally in the fight against climate change, because it creates both the wealth that can mitigate the effects of climate change and the technological innovation needed to address its causes. That’s especially true of poorer countries, for which foreign investment, free trade, market-oriented reforms and good regulatory frameworks will do more to build climate resilience than additional billions in foreign aid.
8) Get serious about the environmental trade-offs that come with clean energy. You cannot support wind farms but hinder the transmission lines needed to bring their power to the markets where they are needed. You cannot support wind farms but sue to block them in places where they might block your view of Nantucket Sound. You cannot support wind farms but support environmental regulations that make mining for rare earths in the United States unprofitable and send the industry to China (where meaningful regulations are effectively nonexistent). And you cannot cheer U.S. reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but oppose the fracking revolution in natural gas that helped bring it about.
9) A problem for the future is, by its very nature, a moral one. A conservative movement that claims to care about what we owe the future has the twin responsibility of setting an example for its children and at the same time preparing for that future. The same prudential logic that applies to personal finances, business decisions, Social Security, the federal debt or other risks to financial solvency should dictate thoughtful policies when it comes to climate.
I arrived in Greenland thinking about Robert Frost’s “Desert Places.” When I left, the verses I had in mind were from “God’s Grandeur,” a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that my father had me memorize as a boy:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
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