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December 2, 2007

Robert Samuelson: Global Warming Simplicities

Robert Samuelson on global warming. There's plenty to talk about here, but my internet connection is less than perfect at the moment, so I am going to leave this one (and the others today) to comments:

Global Warming Simplicities, by Robert J. Samuelson, Commentary, Washington Post: We in the news business often enlist in moral crusades. Global warming is among the latest. Unfortunately, self-righteous indignation can undermine good journalism. A recent Newsweek cover story on global warming is a sobering reminder. It's an object lesson on how viewing the world as "good guys vs. bad guys" can lead to a vast oversimplification of a messy story. Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it.

If you missed Newsweek's story, here's the gist. A "well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change." This "denial machine" has obstructed action against global warming and is still "running at full throttle." The story's thrust: Discredit the "denial machine," and the country can start the serious business of fighting global warming. ...

The global-warming debate's great unmentionable is this: We lack the technology to get from here to there. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 doesn't mean it can happen. At best, we might curb the growth of emissions.

Consider a 2006 study from the International Energy Agency. Using present policies, it projected that emissions of carbon dioxide ... would more than double by 2050; developing countries would account for almost 70 percent of the increase. The IEA then simulated an aggressive, global program to cut emissions that is based on the best available technologies: more solar, wind and biomass energy; more-efficient cars, appliances and buildings; more nuclear energy. Under this admitted fantasy, global emissions in 2050 would still slightly exceed 2003 levels.

Even the fantasy would be a stretch. In the United States, it would take massive regulations, higher energy taxes or both. Democracies don't easily adopt painful measures in the present to avert possible future problems. ...

One way or another, our assaults against global warming are likely to be symbolic, ineffective or both. But if we succeed in cutting emissions substantially, savings would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere. ...

Against these real-world pressures, Newsweek's "denial machine" is a peripheral and highly contrived story. ... The alleged cabal's influence does not seem impressive. The mainstream media have generally been unsympathetic; they've treated global warming ominously. ... Nor does public opinion seem much swayed. ...

What to do about global warming is a quandary. Certainly, more research and development. Advances in underground storage of carbon dioxide, battery technology (for plug-in hybrid cars), biomass or nuclear power could alter energy economics. To cut oil imports, I support a higher gasoline tax -- $1 to $2 a gallon, introduced gradually -- and higher fuel-economy standards for vehicles. These steps would also temper greenhouse gas emissions. Drilling for more domestic natural gas (a low-emission fuel) would make sense. ...

But the overriding reality seems almost un-American: We simply don't have a solution for this problem. As we debate it, journalists should resist the temptation to portray global warming as a morality tale -- as Newsweek did -- in which anyone who questions its gravity or proposed solutions may be ridiculed as a fool, a crank or an industry stooge. Dissent is, or should be, the lifeblood of a free society.

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