Former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham described journalism as the “first rough draft of history.” Perhaps rough draft of hysteria would be a better phrase to use in describing some of the overheated reporting about global warming that has appeared recently. The journalistic community appears to have embraced apocalyptic theories of climate change with the kind of fervor once reserved for religious revivals. Judging from other manias of the recent past — prohibitions of alcohol, immigrants, abortions, etc. — the political system will soon respond with half-baked legislative initiatives that distort market forces and poison popular discourse.
Conservatives saw this coming a long time ago. It wasn’t lost on them that the same part of the political spectrum that discovered the ticking population time bomb and nuclear winter during the cold war — the Left — was the place where the global warming thesis enjoyed its strongest support. Many conservatives concluded that global warming was just the latest expression of a collectivist aspiration for bigger government. However, the same market forces that conservatives so deeply esteem are handing the Right a big defeat on global warming, because the scientific findings have become so compelling that even Exxon Mobil and General Motors have stopped questioning the theory. So skeptics of global warming are losing in the marketplace of ideas.
The scientific evidence really is strong. Eleven of the last twelve years are the hottest on record since observations began in the 1850s, and climatologists say that based on what they know about global weather patterns, there is over a 90% likelihood that the increase in temperatures is traceable to human activity. Most of the climate models suggest a continued, gradual rise in surface temperatures and ocean levels, but the public debate seems to be informed by an unspoken fear in some quarters that an invisible threshold will be breached leading to environmental collapse.
Although our understanding of what climate change means for the future is largely theoretical, conservatives are not well-postured to resist calls for regulation aimed at slowing the emission of greenhouse gases. Having allied itself in the electoral arena with proponents of “intelligent design” and other crackpot theories, the Right has lost much of its former reputation for intellectual rigor. A report in the British science magazine Nature found that support for President Bush among scientists had collapsed between the beginning of his first and second terms. Never a god-fearing lot, scientists have come to regard the Right as their enemy.
There is only one way left for conservatives to save America from the regulatory morass that global warming remediation will entail. They must develop scientific evidence that the theory has been oversold. The way to do that is to vigorously support programs like NASA’s Earth Observing System and the Air Force-NOAA National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) — a next-generation weather satellite — that can close gaps in our understanding of the climate. There are enough of those gaps today so that truly draconian regulatory regimes can be justified on the basis of what might happen if warming continues. A more refined understanding of global climate patterns will probably undercut the alarmists, but until we orbit better instruments for observing the earth, the sky’s the limit in terms of what regulatory burdens might be imposed. Better science has become the last, best chance for preserving an unfettered economy.
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