The New Conservative Argument to Ignore Climate Change Is Even Dumber Than the Old One

09 Aug 2009, Nordaustlandet, Norway --- Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) reflected in pools on melting ice on Sabinebukta Bay at Irminger Point.
President Obama admits his plan will not single-handedly ensure this bear lives forever!Photo: Paul Souders/Corbis

Over the last year, the most common conservative rationale for supporting unlimited, free dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has shifted from insisting that carbon emissions are probably harmless to insisting that international cooperation is impossible. (Oddly, this shift has taken place just as international cooperation on limiting emissions has rapidly gained new momentum.) In a story proposing debate questions for Democrats, National Review has boiled down the talking point into a shorthand form that perfectly encapsulates its mindlessness: “Do you support President Obama’s EPA restrictions on emissions even though science reporters at the New York Times admitted in a recent story that restrictions will do nothing to combat climate change by themselves?” This talking point is now circulating on the right with enough frequency that it bears close analysis.

So, first of all, the New York Times story linked in this question does not say the Clean Power Plan will “do nothing.” It says, “Mr. Obama’s new rules alone will not be enough to stave off that future.” There is a difference between going part of the way toward solving a problem and doing nothing at all to solve a problem. The difference between these two things is conceptually quite simple to understand. Greenhouse-gas emissions are a worldwide problem. Reducing emissions in the United States, the second-largest emitter in the world, will alleviate the problem without eliminating the problem.

Second, a major purpose of reducing American emissions is to encourage further international cooperation. To be sure, it is possible that an international agreement will fall apart. But the operative theory is that reducing American emissions is a necessary if not sufficient condition to produce an international agreement. Nobody has explained how the United States could persuade other countries to bear 100 percent of the cost of transitioning to greener energy sources while imposing zero cost upon itself.

So to say that lower American emissions will not solve the problem “by themselves” is to introduce a caveat that makes the point meaningless. If you suffer a heart attack, calling 911 will not by itself prevent you from dying, because the ambulance might not make it to the hospital before you die. Buying groceries will by itself do nothing to prevent your children from starving, because, hey, maybe your kids won’t eat the food.

The older, anti-climate-science talking points at least employ sophisticated mathematical mumbo jumbo that sound plausible to laypeople. The new talking point rests on grade-school-level sophistry.