The battle for climate change last decade was pitched. Green activists pushed for a new morality of organic foods and biomass fuels; sceptics and outright deniers pushed back, often with equal ideological fervour. Caught in the crossfire was a reasoned debate, one where policymakers would be aware of the challenges here. Without enough consideration, they launched head-on into a much-touted conference at Copenhagen in December.
That conference collapsed. Now perhaps the old polarized debate is starting to collapse, too. Last week saw two giants on opposite ends of the spectrum cut down to size.
Take Rajendra Pachauri who, as head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is the world’s leading climate change proponent. The January scandal now called Himalayagate (IPCC’s loud assertion that glaciers would melt by 2035) has dented its credibility. An independent review released last Monday couldn’t help notice that IPCC makes claims with “high confidence”, but “weak evidentiary basis”.
Then take Bjorn Lomborg, whose The Skeptical Environmentalist (2002), established him as the world’s leading critic. While he doesn’t deny global warming, Lomborg earlier argued that it shouldn’t be a top policy priority: Starting in 2004, he asked economists to look at better ways to spend $50 billion. Yet, last week, The Guardian reported a voluntary about-turn. His next book, out this month, notes that global warming is so big a challenge that world governments should actually be spending $100 billion a year.
So where does that leave this debate?
Climate change can’t be denied. But because the world knows so little about the nature of this threat, it’s never been clear how much or what kind of insurance policymakers should buy to protect against it. The challenges of understanding here can be overwhelming. That’s why it’s important for research to keep evolving.
Simon Dietz, Geoffrey Heal and Antony Millner echo the uncertainty around this debate in a VoxEU.org research piece this month. But they point to another challenge: When policymakers encounter uncertainty, their aversion to academic ambiguity could force them to support strong measures. While the world has a chance to debate this issue anew, policymakers should make sure they don’t unnecessarily whip up excitement for another Copenhagen.
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