Growing Expert-Public Rift on Climate Change
In the last week, just as the U.S. National Research Council issued a long-awaited trinity of blue-ribbon climate studies, the New York Times happened to report that growing skepticism about climate change, its causes, and its gravity is not merely a North American phenomenon. In fact, that skepticism has grown just as fast during the last two years in England and Germany, where public opinion has been strongly alarmist about global warming for close to two decades.
A survey in February by the BBC found that only 26 percent of Britons believed that 'climate change is happening and is now established as largely man-made,' down from 41 percent in November 2009," wrote the Times's Elizabeth Rosenthal. "A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 percent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 percent four years earlier."
Yet, according to studies released by the NRC, "a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks." Among them, specifies the first report on advancing climate science: "rising sea levels, increases in intense rainfall events, decreases in snow cover and sea ice, more frequent and intense heat waves, increases in wildfires, longer growing seasons, and ocean acidification." Additional warming in this century, "on top of the 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit already observed over the last 100 years," could be as high as 11.5 degrees F or 6.4 degrees Celsius.
All that has been the climate science consensus for close to a decade, and so why are publics increasingly resisting calls for action? Could it be that many people are beginning to suspect that it may be cheaper to adapt to climate change than to prevent it? If so, a second of the NRC reports, on climate adaptation, addresses that preference.
"Even if emissions of greenhouse gases were substantially reduced now," says the report, "climate would continue to change for some time to come" and so "potential consequences for humans and ecosystems are significant." The report calls on the U.S. Federal government to "provide technical and scientific resources that are currently lacking at the local or regional scale" and to provide "incentives for local and state authorities to begin adaptation planning." The report praises New York City for being early to plan for climate change, highlights a heatwave early warning system that Philadelphia put into place several years ago, and focuses attention on Alaskan towns that already are having to be relocated because of greater erosion and flooding, reduced sea ice, and permafrost thawing.
It would be interesting to know, given those circumstances, what exactly Sarah Palin thinks should be done to limit the magnitude of climate change, the subject of the third NRC report. (As governor, Palin did useful work to advance the cause of natural gas, but did anybody think to ask her during the presidential campaign about the effects of climate change in Alaska, where they are so dramatically evident?)
The third report says that the United States should adopt a budget for greenhouse gas emissions., 2012-2050, and develop "policy mechanisms durable enough to persist for decades but flexible enough to adapt to new information and understanding." In its write-up of the report, the Times suggested, somewhat misleadingly, that the report implicitly endorses the Obama administration's goals and the energy & climate bill it's trying to get through Congress. The NRC report does in fact endorse Obama's long-term goals, but it is quite critical of two major elements of the American Power Act: its proposal to give away some emission allowances for free, rather than auction them; and its sectorial rather than economy-wide approach to cap-and-trade.