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Heads Still in the Sand on Global Warming

08/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Monday I had one of the my most dispiriting experiences in a long time. I accepted an invitation to attend a "luncheon forum" sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. The topic was "Keeping Our Cool on Global Warming," and the speaker was James Manzi, a senior fellow at the institute. The large room in New York's Harvard Club was packed, mostly with middle-aged to elderly white executives and professionals of one sort or another. I didn't notice any people of color, except among the waiters. As a former TIME science editor who had produced several "alarmist" cover stories about global warming, I felt out of place, but I used to be friends with a former director of the Manhattan Institute, and I guess my name has somehow survived in the organization's database.

As conservative commentators on climate change go, Manzi was pretty reasonable. He didn't say that "global warming is a hoax," like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. To the contrary, he accepted the disturbing predictions of the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He just thinks that society can adapt nicely to the predicted amount of warming. Manzi did, however, acknowledge that the future could be even tougher than the scientists predict.

The problem, said Manzi, is that the cap-and-trade legislation just passed by the House, riddled as it is with exceptions and concessions, will be ineffective in reducing carbon emissions and not worth the cost to the economy. He probably has a point there. Congress would do better to pass a simple, stiff carbon tax, while reducing payroll taxes.

But Manzi doesn't want any mechanism that raises the price of carbon. He said that if Congress enacted a carbon tax, the same parade of lobbyists would be lined up on Capitol Hill to demand tax abatements. Manzi's bottom line is that no anti-global warming policy will be effective enough to offset the damage done to the economy. He knows because he's studied many studies of the effects of climate legislation on GDP. We would be better off, he said, spending the money to fix problems created by global warming in the future when we know what the problems are. We'll have a higher GDP in the future to use as a war chest, his argument goes.

Now I admit that I am not a practicing economist and am not an expert in a science that is known to be very exact and always right (though I did get an undergraduate degree in economics many moons ago). Therefore I am not qualified to have an opinion about my future and the fate of the earth. And on some facile, theoretical, by-the-numbers level, Manzi can make a case that convinces many. Eminent economists like Yale's William Nordhaus have made similar arguments.

But this ivory-tower logic defies common sense. To me, a similar argument in the 1950s would have held that we can't introduce computers because it will reduce the growth in the adding-machine business. The whole idea is to stimulate growth in cleaner industries while we penalize polluters. As a society, we have always made choices about the kind of growth we want to pursue. For my part, I would like to see fewer shopping malls and more schools and alternative-energy plants. Manzi says that transforming our energy system will reduce our GDP in the long run. I don't see how he can know that, no matter how many macroeconomic models he's studied. I think the current energy system is choking our quality of life and mortgaging our future.

Manzi did suggest that the Government should spent a fair amount of money doing research on alternative energy sources just in case global warming turns out to be worse than expected. Thank you for that, Mr. Manzi.

The general nodding of heads indicated that most of the audience agreed with Manzi. During the question and comment period, one guy asked what could possibly motivate people like Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore who made such a big deal about global warming. Another guy asked why the media won't accept "the facts" that we can't do anything about global warming and it's probably nothing to worry about anyway.

Finally, I stood up to show myself as an enemy in the midst of this gathering. Revealing my former TIME connection, I said that "some of you probably used my cover stories as dart boards." I explained that people like Gore and Pelosi are very worried about the future of their children and grandchildren. I explained that the media didn't print "the facts" this group wanted to see because 90% of "the facts" this group has heard are part of a two-decade campaign of disinformation financed by the oil and coal industries. Manzi denied being financed by the oil and coal industries. But I can assure you that these industries helped create the ideological world that has nurtured his career.

That's what's so scary. These rich old white men live in their own isolated, ideological world. They watch Fox News. They read the Wall Street Journal editorial page. They read the output of conservative propaganda machines like the Manhattan Institute. They send e-mails to each other. They talk only to each other. They actually think they are right.

I guess they would say the same about enviros like me. But I came to hear what they had to say, and I found it very unconvincing. Will they ever realize that their ideology is a self-delusion used to justify their own selfishness? In my opinion, here's what their philosophy boils down to: Let me keep my riches now. Screw my children. Screw my grandchildren. If someday their grandchildren confront them about the effects of global warming, and they realize they have been wrong, I hope they feel really bad.

When the lunch was over, I hightailed it out of the room, not wanting to be accosted by indignant conservatives who want to conserve everything but the planet. But stopping in the bathroom, I was surprised to meet a couple of younger audience members who thanked me for what I had said and asked where my writing appeared these days. I replied that after two decades of trying to convince people to do something about global warming, I had pretty much given up writing about it. I was burned out. I mentioned that I occasionally put something on Huffington Post. "Don't give up," they said. "Keep writing."

So here I am, at it again, wishing that the Senate will produce a lot stronger bill than the House did. I guess there's still a little hope left in my weary soul.