Questions for climate change activists

The Paris climate conference kicks off this week, the latest attempt by world leaders to nail down a global agreement on decreasing carbon emissions.

My own views on climate change are too difficult to explain in a single blog post. Briefly, I believe that, yes, climate change is occurring; yes, human activity must be considered at least one of the major causes; but no, it’s not anything like the catastrophe that activists are always making it out to be.

One reason I believe this — it’s not the only reason, but it’s one of them — is because I believe strongly in what economists call “revealed preference,” which is a fancy term for judging the reality of a situation based on what people do, rather than what they say. An example: Lots of white people say they’re in favor of greater racial integration and diversity. But the vast majority of white people, even very liberal white people, go to extreme efforts to avoid living in “diverse,” integrated neighborhoods. A skeptic might see this as reason to question how committed all these folks really are to diversity on more than a superficial level.

A cruder way of expressing the same idea is the old saying: People don’t shit where they eat.

Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds is fond of trolling climate activists this way by saying, “I’ll believe there’s a crisis when the people telling me there’s a crisis start acting like there’s a crisis,” before linking to some news story that shows ultra-rich climate activists blithely engaging in some activity that, by their own standards, is deadly to the health of the planet.

Plainly, these folks can’t think the problem is that serious, Reynolds implies. After all, people who genuinely fear something typically go to great lengths to avoid it and/or prepare for its occurrence. Right?

I don’t think it’s quite that cut-and-dried, as I’ll explain in a moment, but I know what Glenn is getting at. I’d like to put the problem another way. I’d like to ask climate activists a few questions. I’m not trolling here. These are real questions that you really should put some thought into:

Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. An example of an effective penalty for noncompliance.
  • Under what circumstances are you prepared to kill somebody, give the order to kill somebody, or consent to allowing other people to kill somebody in order to protect the climate?
  • Under what conditions is it acceptable to declare war on another country, with the express purpose of forcing a change of that country’s policies in order to protect the climate? Would you be willing to put “boots on the ground” and risk the lives of your country’s soldiers to force such a change?
  • Under what conditions is it acceptable to drop bombs on civilian population centers in order to force a country to change its climate policies?
  • Under what conditions is it acceptable to consider the use of nuclear weapons in order to force a country to change its climate policies?

If you believe these questions are silly, then I’m afraid you are terribly naïve about the way the world works.

During the Cold War, American and Soviet leaders had to wrestle with these horrific, agonizing “what-if” scenarios all the time, because the various agreements, treaties, declarations and what have you were regarded as deadly serious. When the fate of the world is in the balance, there’s no room for feel-good gestures that don’t actually do anything. Well, isn’t climate change at least as great a threat as nuclear annihilation, if not more so? If we were willing to consider using nukes, if necessary, to stop Communism, why wouldn’t we consider using nukes to stop a climate catastrophe?

I can only speak for myself, but if I seriously believed the hair-raising climate forecasts pushed by activists, these are the questions I would be contemplating, in addition to all the other concerns they have. After all, it’s one thing to mandate emissions reductions for the U.S. or Europe, where there is a strong presumption that the government will make a reasonably decent effort to enforce the law. It’s another thing to expect that in a corrupt, famously opaque nation like China.

Here’s the problem: As long as the perceived dangers of climate change exist beyond the time horizon of current leaders, and there are demonstrable short-term economic benefits for countries to engage in activities that harm the climate, then there will be an incentive for some countries not to go along with efforts to fight climate change. Both of these things are inarguably true; otherwise, why the need for a treaty? After all, we do not require treaties to prevent nations from engaging in activities whose harm will be immediate and obvious — there is no need to sign a global treaty to prevent nations from spiking the world’s water supply with cyanide. Treaties are only necessary for situations where short-term advantages are potentially significant enough, and consequences potentially remote enough, that foolhardy leaders might be tempted to roll the dice on a risky course of action. The point of a treaty is to impose definite short-term costs on certain actions, thus forcing leaders with a gambling streak to take those costs into consideration.

Point is, as long as the incentive is there to harm the climate, some countries are going to choose to follow that incentive. Sure, these countries might be happy to make a big show of signing their names to this or that international climate accord, but there’s no guarantee they’ll make any sort of effort to abide by it.

If that happens, then you, as a climate activist, must ask yourself: What am I prepared to do about it?

Sure, you can place your hopes in “soft power” and in smaller measures such as trade sanctions. And these options will even work — for some countries. But it won’t work with all of them. Ultimately, some nations — I’m thinking specifically of China — aren’t going to be moved by any of this.

Soft power ultimately rests on hard power, and hard power rests on whether the other guy really believes you’re willing to put tanks in his streets and bombers in his skies to get your way. Bluntly, there is no way any kind of “international climate agreement” to reduce global emissions can possibly work unless there are a specific series of red lines which cannot be crossed, and if they are crossed, will result in an escalating series of penalties for the offending nation, up to and including the forcible replacement of the offending nation’s government with a government more acceptable to the international community.

If this kind of hard, stark language seems out of place when discussing a global emissions agreement, it’s because we have become accustomed to a watered-down understanding of international agreements. There are dozens of global agreements, treaties, accords, and pacts which don’t really require any of the signatories to do anything that matters. Countries with appalling human rights records are often happy to sign various “human rights” agreements because they know that there will be no penalty for failure to comply; signing one of these agreements is just seen as a matter of international etiquette, like telling the bride at a wedding that she looks beautiful, even if you tell your spouse in the car on the way home that you actually thought the bride looked like a mule.

But a binding treaty on global emissions — a real one — cannot be like one of these feel-good pseudo-agreements. A global climate agreement will require certain countries to take certain actions. Not just sign a document promising to take those actions — they’ll actually have to do them, because the health of the planet is at stake. The climate is not going to bow to parchment guarantees.

If certain countries won’t take these agreed-upon actions, then they will have to be forced to take them. If the planet is literally at risk the in the way climate activists claim, then there is no way around this. The penalties do not necessarily have to be spelled out — “do X, or we’ll nuke your capital” — but it must be made crystal clear that certain violations will be punished, and that repeated, willful violations will be punished severely, and that those punishments will increase in severity until compliance is forthcoming. Any agreement that you actually expect people to comply with must have some kind of real penalty for noncompliance; otherwise, it’s merely a suggestion.

Vietnam, 1972. An example of unfortunate collateral damage in the course of inflicting penalties for noncompliance. These penalties ultimately failed to elicit compliance, suggesting that they were perhaps too mild.

If you as a climate activist find all of this too terrible to contemplate — if you just don’t have the stomach to think about, say, dumping napalm on innocent little babies in order to get the other side to do what you want — then you need to come to terms with the fact that human-induced climate change very likely cannot be reversed, and the focus needs to shift right now from prevention to mitigation.

Instead of global treaties, there needs to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to devise specific technological fixes to either reverse climate change or deal with the unavoidable consequences. There needs to be a worldwide Apollo-on-steroids project to develop a reliable, large-scale way to capture excess atmospheric carbon, and we need to be drawing up plans for the mass evacuation of low-lying coastal areas. We need a global Noah’s Ark-style project to preserve plants and animals that are at risk from being wiped out by climate change. All of this stuff should be at the top of the agenda right now — not maybe, in a few years, after we’ve tried a few more times to get a global agreement; these initiatives need to be ramping up right this very second. Think of a doctor treating a smoker who has advanced lung cancer — while getting the patient to quit would be great, you’d be remiss in your duties if you’re not already scheduling surgery and chemotherapy.

The fact that climate activists cannot bring themselves to talk this way leads me to conclude that they either haven’t thought really hard about the real-world implications of their views, or they do not sincerely believe what they profess to believe — at least not with the degree of certainty that they publicly claim. Since I generally credit people with being sincere regarding their stated beliefs, I suspect most climate activists fall into the former category — that is, they really believe this; they just haven’t really thought through all the implications of it. Hopefully this will spur them to think more realistically about the issue. Being able to answer tough questions like these, at least hypothetically, would go a long way towards addressing my skepticism.


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