A Heavyweight Conservative Weighs In On Climate Change


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Atmospheric carbon dioxide hasn't been this high for two million years. Graph courtesy of NOAA

Atmospheric carbon dioxide hasn’t been this high for two million years. Graph courtesy of NOAA

Henry Paulson, former Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, wrote an opinion piece on June 22 in the New York Times (“The Coming Climate Crash”) exhorting action on climate change.

After so much climate-change denial from the right, it is good to hear an influential conservative express this sensible view:

“There is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting.” And, “Those who claim the science is unsettled or action is too costly are simply trying to ignore the problem.”

Mr. Paulson has impeccable conservative credentials: former CEO of Goldman Sachs; avowed Republican; the man given most of the credit for saving the banking system in the 2008 financial crisis.

He is particularly qualified to comment on this matter because the financial crisis and climate change can be viewed through the same prism: one which separates a calamity-in-waiting into its potential effects and reveals that it is much more easily dealt with sooner than later.

Melting Of Antarctic Ice May Have Turned The Tide

The recent reports that the melting of part of the West Antarctic ice sheet has become irreversible has raised eyebrows and awareness concerning the criticality of the problem. Until those reports, the general attitude has been like that of a casual drinker who has gotten to five drinks a day but thinks he can still stop from becoming an alcoholic.

So much of our planet is now engineered, unquestionably mostly for the good, that there is a conviction that we can get around to solving problems, including environmental problems, whenever we choose; normally when we choose is when a problem has become dire.

It is now clear, as Mr. Paulson points out, that some things can be left too long — like the increasing bank debt in 2007. Mr. Paulson concludes that cavalier attitudes nearly caused an irreversible financial crash, and that similar attitudes are threatening to cause a slide into irreversible climate change.

The Science Of Global Warming Is Clear

The earth’s atmosphere is in balance between the incoming radiation from the sun and the outgoing radiation emitted by the earth. The former heats the earth and the latter cools it; the ground temperatures are transferred to the atmosphere by conduction.

The incoming radiation is mostly in the visible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum; the outgoing radiation is primarily in the microwave wavelengths.

The essential fact that explains global warming is that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are transparent to visible light and opaque to microwave radiation. Incoming sunlight passes through the atmosphere and heats the earth. Outgoing radiation is increasingly trapped by greenhouse gases.

It is not a great leap of intellect to deduce that the more carbon dioxide the atmosphere contains, the warmer it will get.

The Evidence For Global Warming Is Overwhelming

Decades ago, when the link between man-made carbon dioxide emissions and a warming planet were tentative and theoretical, there was no urgency to do anything; powerful interests opposed action. The recent observation of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over 400 parts per million, temperature records that show a conclusive warming trend, and an increasing consensus of climate models, has changed the debate.

Conservative politicians increasingly talk about the cost in money and jobs of dealing with climate change, rather than denying it. Mr. Paulson argues that it will cost much more to wait than to act now.

The Climate Of The Past: A Scary Comparison

The last time the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeded 400 ppm was over two million years ago. At that time the earth’s temperature was more than ten degrees warmer than it is now. Other times in the past when carbon dioxide was this high also correspond to eras with a much warmer planet.

Now What Do We Do?

Mr. Paulson’s recommendation for curbing carbon dioxide emissions is a carbon tax. Decoded Science takes no position on the exact solution to the greenhouse gas problem. But we reiterate that it must eventually be international (Paulson: “It’s true that the United States can’t solve this problem alone.”), and we restate the principal political problem: Developed countries are loath to relinquish their lavish, fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyles — and developing nations are anxious to acquire them.

Concurrently, the fundamental fact of American politics is: If a prominent liberal is for it, conservatives are against; and vice-versa. Conservatives have denied climate change partly in response to Al Gore’s campaign against greenhouse gas emissions.

Hopefully the voice of a prominent conservative with credentials as a businessman, economist, and politician will encourage everyone to take a serious, sensible view of the subject of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

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