07/18/2011 09:21 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

Will the Real Global Warming Alarmists Please Stand Up?

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone called Al Gore an alarmist.

The dictionary definition of an alarmist is "someone who is considered to be exaggerating a danger and so causing needless worry or panic," "a person who habitually spreads alarming rumors, exaggerated reports of danger, etc." Not to be confused, of course, with someone who sounds the alarm about a genuine threat. Someone who shouts "Fire!" in a movie theater is a villain if there's no fire, but a hero if there is.

In the case of climate change, 97% of climate experts -- the scientists who publish in peer-reviewed journals -- agree that the climate is changing as a result of human activity. Given the dramatic scale of current and anticipated impacts, this is akin to a fire smoldering in the projection room.

But what about those who shout "fire!" in relation to measures aimed at eliminating energy waste and our dependency on fossil fuels? This is the other side of the alarmist coin.

This kind of alarmism has led to a spate of death threats against climate scientists, most recently in Australia where a heated public debate over a proposed carbon tax is currently raging. I'm not referring to the run-of-the-mill creepy, anonymous emails that many of us receive from time to time, but to blatant and open hate-mongering. Take the example of German physicist Hans Schellnhuber, who spoke at a conference in Melbourne recently. Accused of being a "green fascist," his speech was interrupted by a member of the audience brandishing a hangman's noose (you can watch it for yourself here).

Or how about Christopher Monckton, currently touring Australia to whip up opposition to the carbon tax? He calls his critics fascists, yet without the slightest hint of irony makes this threat against climate scientists: "So to the bogus scientists who have produced the bogus science that invented this bogus scare, I say, we are coming after you, we are going to prosecute you and we are going to lock you up!" (You can hear it on this Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC program at 5.08 minutes).

Leave aside the relative merits of the scientific arguments. (Monckton's were thoroughly discredited in the ABC program, as well as in a recent BBC documentary called Meet the Climate Skeptics.) Check out Skeptical Science for a comprehensive inventory of claims and responses to skeptic arguments.

Let's look instead at the arguments of the 'Progress Alarmists,' i.e. those who apparently believe that solving the climate problem will bring an end to civilization as we know it. It's a curious position given the myriad non-climate benefits to be had from getting off fossil fuels. Here are the two most common:

1) "It costs too much." This is a favorite argument for inaction. But a new peer-reviewed report concludes "the damages from a ton of carbon dioxide emissions in 2050 could equal or exceed the cost of reducing emissions at the maximum technically feasible rate. In other words, it is unequivocally less expensive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than to suffer climate damages."

This is consistent with the findings of the seminal review on the economics of climate change, led by Lord Nicholas Stern in 2006:

The evidence shows that ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth. Our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century. And it will be difficult or impossible to reverse these changes. Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries. The earlier effective action is taken, the less costly it will be.

2) "It curtails freedom," or any number of variations on that theme that imply national sovereignty is subjugated to the United Nations (hint: it won't). Last week's Congressional 'Battle of the Bulb' is a classic example of 'Progress Alarmism' and one that has left even me scratching my head.

A law signed by George W. Bush in 2007 (with the support of manufacturers!) requires a 30% increase in the efficiency of light bulbs, with savings to consumers estimated at around $100-$200 per year for a total of $15 billion per year. In practice, this spells the end of old-style incandescent bulbs, although newer more efficient versions will still be available in addition to compact fluorescents, LEDs and others that meet the standard. In an effort to overturn the regulation, Rush Limbaugh has attacked it as a form of "nannyism, statism" and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann referred to it as "an issue of freedom. It's about whether people are able to make even the most basic decisions anymore or whether Big Brother will control every aspect of their lives."

Shall we compare those comments with their positions on, let's see now, gay marriage? flag burning? smoking marijuana? and see if the freedom argument holds water? Inconsistency aside, the fact is that climate change knows no borders and therefore requires a cooperative international approach to deal with it. Any country that exercises its freedom to profligately pollute ultimately condemns other countries to annihilation. And if you think that's an alarmist exaggeration, ask the people of Tuvalu or the Maldives. It's the equivalent of demanding the right to shout "fire" in the cinema on principle.

So the next time you hear claims like Limbaugh's or Bachmann's (Big Brother? Control over every aspect of our lives? Really?) ask yourself who the real alarmist is.