In the past, you could get away with just about anything by saying “The Word of God”. These days, you can get the same effect by saying “Climate Change”. People will focus on whether or not they believe, not on whether or not what you say makes sense.
American politics are unique, as far as I know, in that the very fact of man-made climate change is a political issue. Not whether it is a bad thing or what to do about it, but the actual temperature measurements, not to mention the models used to predict future changes.
In a way it is understandable that American conservatives flat out deny man-made climate change. After all, liberals believe in it. In the current poisonous political atmosphere (which is far more dangerous to the country that whatever happens in the physical atmosphere), if your opponent claims the moon is not made of cheese, it probably means they have secret plans to eat it.
There is also the unfortunate tendency for an unholy alliance of progressive politicians and mass media to hype current weather aberrations as proof of climate change. But the truth is that we have literally seen nothing yet: The world is slowly heating up, but from a record low in the 17th century. These things literally happen at a glacial speed, as glaciers are a big player in the process. So we are now back to around the Viking age in temperature, and the Bronze Age was warmer than that, and the late Stone Age warmer than that again. So we have literally not seen anything yet that hasn’t been there already.
In the past, singular weather events like a bad storm or a year of drought were hyped by religious groups as divine punishment. The current behavior is essentially the same, God being replaced by a more nebulous force. But it is still some higher force punishing us for our greed, and people react in much the same way: Not very much at all, since people generally like their greed.
Again, we have literally seen nothing new yet, but we are probably past the point of no return where we will see change on a whole new level – some day in the future when gas-driven cars seem as quaint as horse-driven carriages. And by then, it would probably have changed anyway, either becoming hotter or colder or wetter or drier.Â So conservatives are perfectly right to redefine “climate change denier” as “someone who, despite overwhelming proof, refuses to believe that the climate has always been changing.”
A hot summer or cold winter or a particularly devastating tornado or three are weather, not climate. But these are the things that get attention, and the press is adding to the confusion. The press – and presumably TV, for those dumb enough to watch that – is trying to stir up intense emotions, because that’s what sells. Spring coming two, then three weeks earlier to Norway or Canada is not going to compete with the latest sex scandal or grotesque murder. You have to have cities swallowed by the ocean and stuff, so that’s the angle you get. But then you come to the beach and it is exactly where it was last year, and it is kind of hard not to dismiss the whole thing as a hoax.
It is not a hoax. Science has known for over 200 years that carbon dioxide retains heat, because it lets light through but scatters infrared (heat) radiation. Light comes down during the day, and is absorbed to some degree by any surface that is not pure white (or a mirror), more the darker the surface. Light that is absorbed does not disappear, but is radiated as heat. (This can take its sweet time if it is absorbed by plants, of course, since these must be eaten or burned or some such to release the heat. And a lot of the planet is covered in plants, but they actually store only a minor part of the energy that hits them. Nobody calls for more efficient plants though. There are actual differences even between existing species, without genetic engineering.)
So if we increase the carbon dioxide and methane content in the atmosphere, it will hold back more of the heat that would otherwise radiate into space. This is what these gases do and they can’t help it. You can see them in action on our sister planets Venus and Mars, and the atmosphere already keeps Earth 19 Kelvin warmer than it otherwise would be, which is very much a good thing. That’s why nobody complained during those 200 years that we already knew about the greenhouse effect. Even children could read about this in any serious book on astronomy, and it was in no way controversial. It shouldn’t be now.
What should be controversial is the notion that if the planet is getting hotter, we need more socialism, more taxes and more regulations of everything from banks to children’s books. Seriously? No, seriously? If we are facing a massive environmental challenge, don’t we need the most flexible economy we could possibly have? History has already shown us just how great socialism is to protect the environment: It left Eastern Europe an ugly, poisoned dystopia at a point where the forests were already beginning to spread again in North America. If your house is on fire, you don’t call for a pyromaniac. If your environment is in trouble, you don’t call for socialism.
Now, don’t get this wrong. Taxing carbon dioxide emissions is a perfectly reasonable approach, if you think your country will suffer from the global warming. (If you think it will profit from it, that’s a bit different. Scandinavia, Canada, and Siberia will probably all benefit greatly from an ice-free Arctic, for instance.) Taxing carbon emissions from the industry might cause the industry to move elsewhere, so is somewhat less efficient than taxing gas-driven cars or coal-driven power plants. But you can still tax goods on the border for the carbon dioxide emissions made during production. There is nothing controversial about this from a fiscal conservative point of view. Taxing negative externalities is a staple of conservative economic theory, believe it or not. Â Laissez-faire does not actually extend to looking the other way when someone dumps their garbage in their neighbor’s backyard.
So yeah, most countries will probably want to tax carbon fuel in order to discourage its use, but should then pass this money back to the people by cutting other taxes or subsidizing positive externalities (like painting your house white, installing solar cells etc). There is no reason to use it to finance your weird culture wars. Â Stop doing that, so people can take you seriously.