Like a lot of conservatives who write about public policy, my views on climate change place me in the ranks of what the British writer Matt Ridley once dubbed the “lukewarmers.”
Lukewarmers accept that the earth is warming and that our civilization’s ample CO2 emissions are a major cause. They doubt, however, that climate change represents a crisis unique among the varied challenges we face, or that the global regulatory schemes advanced to deal with it will work as advertised. And they raise an eyebrow at the contrast between the apocalyptic, absolutist rhetoric with which these schemes are regularly defended and their actual details, which seem mostly designed to enable the globe’s statesmen to greenwash the pursuit of economic and political self-interest.
More specifically, lukewarmers look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s official projections and see a strong likelihood that rising temperatures will drag on GDP without leading to catastrophe. They look at the record of climatological predictions and see a pattern in which observed warming hugs the lower, non-disastrous end of the spectrum of projections. And they look at the substance of the Paris accord, which papered over a failed attempt to set binding emission rules with a set of fine-sounding promises, and see little to justify all the anguish and despair over Donald Trump’s decision to abandon it.
The despairing are unlikely to be convinced by this quick description, so for a better sense of the lukewarmist case, I recommend two recent essays by Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute: First, “The Problem With Climate Catastrophizing,” from Foreign Affairs, and second, “How to Worry About Climate Change,” from National Affairs.
But while inviting readers to ease their pain over Paris with the balm of lukewarmism, I also want to concede two problems with this approach. The first is that no less than alarmism, lukewarmism can be vulnerable to cherry-picking and selection bias, reaching for any piece of evidence – and when you’re dealing with long-term trends, there’s a lot of evidence to choose from – that supports its non-catastrophic assumptions, even if the bulk of the data starts to point the other way.
This means that every lukewarmer, including especially those in positions of political authority, should be pressed to identify trends that would push them toward greater alarmism and a sharper focus on the issue.
I'll answer that challenge myself: My own alarm over climate change has gone up modestly since the Obama-era cap-and-trade debates, as the decade or more in which observed warming was slow or even flat – the much-contested warming “pause” – has given way to a clearer rise in global temperatures.
If you chart this spike against the range of climate change projections, it brings the trend up into the middle of climatologists’ scenarios for the first time in some years. Maybe that will be temporary and it will fall back. But the closer the real trend gets to the worst-case projections, the more my lukewarmism will look Pollyannish and require substantial reassessment.
But this is where the second objection to lukewarmism comes in, which is that such reassessment might happen on op-ed pages but not in actual right-wing politics, because in actual right-wing politics no serious assessment of the science and the risks is taking place to begin with. Instead there’s just a mix of business-class and blue-collar self-interest and a trollish, “If liberals are for it, we’re against it” anti-intellectualism. So while lukewarmers may fancy ourselves serious interlocutors for liberals, we’re actually just running interference on behalf of know-nothing and do-nothingism, attacking flawed policies on behalf of a Republican Party that will never, ever advance any policies of its own.
This critique is not necessarily wrong. A Republican Party that was really shaped by lukewarmism would probably still oppose the Paris deal and shrink from sweeping carbon taxes. But it would be actively debating and budgeting for the two arenas – innovation and mitigation – where the smartest skeptics of regulatory solutions tend to place their faith.
This is not what the GOP seems inclined to do. Instead it lets lukewarmers poke holes in liberal proposals for climate insurance policies, and then sits back satisfied that no insurance policy, no extra effort, is necessary at all.
Earlier I recommended reading Oren Cass’ essays; now I'll quote his tweet when Trump pulled out of the Paris accord. “Hopefully someday,” he wrote, “we'll get a reality-based climate agreement that helps prepare for and adapt to whatever climate change brings.”
The problem is that while Paris was not sufficiently rooted in reality, the anti-Paris sentiments that moved Trump weren’t entirely reality-based either. And a clear Republican plan for how to “prepare for and adapt to whatever climate change brings” does not actually exist.
In its absence, lukewarmism is a critique without an affirmative agenda, a theory of the case without a party that’s prepared to ever act on it. So its claim to offer a fully-credible policy alternative to climate alarmism awaits a different president, and a very different GOP.