Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and writer about energy, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal stating “Five Truths About Climate Change.” Some of his assertions are to the effect that there’s not that much that can be done to restrain carbon emissions. That’s a debatable stance, and I will address it. Then I will go on to his fifth “truth,” which has to do with the science of climate change.
But let’s take things in order. Bryce’s first assertion is:
1) The carbon taxers/limiters have lost.
Despite the high-profile warnings of Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Bryce points out, there has been scant action taken by governments in the past decade, while carbon emissions have soared. That’s true enough, but it doesn’t mean actions shouldn’t have been taken. Also, it says little about what may be politically feasible in the future. Maybe some creative future president will conduct a grand bargain that implements a carbon tax while abolishing the payroll tax, for instance.
Bryce’s next point, in its totality:
2) Regardless of whether it’s getting hotter or colder — or both — we are going to need to produce a lot more energy in order to remain productive and comfortable.
The first part of that sentence strikes me as deliberately vague. Sure, it’s getting colder or both hotter and colder, depending on where and when exactly you’re looking. Global warming is a broad and long-term trend of increasing temperatures, which has been confirmed by multiple data sets. But more about the science later. I take no issue with the statement that “we are going to need to produce a lot more energy in order to remain productive and comfortable.”
3) The carbon-dioxide issue is not about the United States anymore.
Bryce makes a valid point that China’s carbon emissions have grown dramatically, lately overtaking America’s, though it’s worth adding that U.S. emissions are still much higher on a per capita basis. But that only underscores the importance of developing cleaner energy sources and more energy-efficient technologies. Besides environmental considerations, it would be better for the U.S. economy if such innovations were developed largely in the U.S., rather than China or elsewhere.
4) We have to get better — and we are — at turning energy into useful power.
Agreed, though Bryce seems to think this is happening purely as an autonomous market process rather than having anything to do with regulations such as energy-efficiency standards. (He even mentions more efficient light bulbs without noting the political contretemps over their efficiency standards.)
Finally, we get to Bryce’s fifth point.
5) The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might — repeat, might — travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.
This attempt to stuff climate science into a black hole is a non sequitur. That’s not just because the neutrino finding, even if confirmed, has nothing to do with the data or theories of climate science. It’s also because the analogy Bryce is making — if relativity could be wrong, so could global warming — presents a misleading picture of the respective scientific theories and how science works.
For one thing, relativity did not fully overthrow the Newtonian physics that had been used for hundreds of years before Einstein. Rather, what Einstein showed was that new laws were required when dealing with objects that are traveling at extremely high speeds or that have great mass. Relativity is primarily a theory of the exotic, though it also had technological ramifications that brought some exotic effects into everyday life — for example, in the way nuclear power plants convert mass into energy.
If the neutrino finding is confirmed, this will mean physics has to be modified again. Based on historical experience, one can expect relativity would be subsumed into some larger theoretical picture (much as Newtonian physics was) rather than just thrown away. Certainly the finding will not mean that all data having to do with relativity — for example, the fact that nuclear power plants work — get overturned.
Similarly, no plausible change in climate science will wipe away all the data that show the Earth has been warming, or that the warming shows distinct patterns indicative of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. If some new theory were to replace the current one, it would have to explain why the greenhouse effect — the basics of which have been known since the mid-19th century — is not operating, despite the increase in atmospheric carbon. It would require some entirely new mechanism to be introduced into everyday physics and chemistry. By contrast, the (possible) neutrino finding would be small potatoes.