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Truly Bad Advice on Climate Change

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CLIMATE CHANGE
Luiz Felipe Castro via Getty Images

On Wednesday, April 9, The New York Times published one of the most exasperating op-eds I've yet read on climate change. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote that articles that link global warming to the rash of extreme weather events hurt rather than help efforts to rouse the public to the scale of the threat by alienating conservatives. Instead they recommend focusing on how mitigation might make a better society, and on promoting nuclear power and geoengineering.

Where to begin? Let's start with the fact that one reason conservatives have hardened their opposition even as the evidence that climate is changing has become overwhelming is that there has been an extremely well-funded campaign to spread confusion and disinformation on the issue going back to the 1990s. This is never mentioned in the op-ed.

The unmentioned campaign has been remarkably effective. National newspapers like The Wall Street Journal give discredited scientists and peddlers of specious arguments (e.g., the argument that there has been no unusual rise in global temperatures) a pulpit and a patina of legitimacy. If you accept the arguments of the deniers that those scientists who spread alarm about global warming are twisting the facts and have a self-interested agenda, then of course you are going to see items linking extreme weather to climate change as further proof of their duplicity.

Then there is the fact that media did low-key the issue for about a decade, starting in the mid-90s, despite an ever-stronger scientific consensus. The result of this low-key result was that the issue dropped off the radar. It's only because of the eye-popping weather extremes of the past few years that global warming has come back into focus.

But the absurdity of this op-ed really comes into focus if you accept its premise. Let's say the scientific community and the media made a concerted effort to avoid linking disasters to climate change (actually, they are already doing that, as most of the articles and news items I've seen have stressed the uncertainties), what then? We Americans have proven time and again that we only act when there is an emergency, as after 9/11, for instance, or the financial crash of 2008 (not that the reactions to either of these crises should be a model for how to respond to climate change). Without a sense of urgency Americans are going to continue to do what they've been doing since the threat first gained attention 25 years ago: nothing.

In the U.S. we are becoming more carbon-efficient as companies and individuals become more cost-conscious and alternatives gain appeal. The problem is that climate is changing faster than this conservative-friendly transition. In effect, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are saying: Don't acknowledge what is staring you in the face, because it's going to cause conservatives to stick their heads deeper into the sand. It's akin to advising a father not to mention that the house is burning down because it might upset the children. Thanks, guys!

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