“I’d like to see what (Francis) says as it relates to climate change, and how it connects to these broader, deeper, issues,” says Bush, who converted to Catholicism 25 years ago. “But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
I certainly get that. If you want guidance about a scientific phenomenon such as climate change, you don’t turn to religious leaders any more than you would turn to, say, talk-radio hosts or a blog host. Pope Francis, for all his wisdom, has not spent his entire career studying the Earth’s climate, atmosphere and oceans and the complex interplay among them. He is hardly an expert.
In such a situation, you would of course turn to science. And what do the overwhelming majority of scientists tell us?
That’s where things get interesting, because Bush and other climate-change deniers are no more willing to take guidance from science than they are from the pope. For example, they choose not to know that according to the experts at NOAA, the most recent 12-month period — from May 2014 to April 2015 — is tied for the hottest 12-month period on record in the past 136 years. It equals the period from April 2014 to March 2015. In fact, according to NOAA, “nine of the ten warmest 12-month periods have occurred within the past two years.”
Scientists also tell us that if we measure by the traditional January-to-December calendar year, 2015 may top 2014 as the hottest on record, especially with an El Nino building in the waters of the Pacific Ocean (El Nino is a cyclical Pacific phenomenon that tends to drive global temperatures upward). In the temperature chart below, for example, El Nino-type years are those in red, while cooler La Nina-type years are in blue:
In the chart, the baseline of zero represents the global average temperature from 1901 to 2000. As you can see, the upward trend is pretty obvious. And see that one line on the left that extends below the baseline? That’s the single solitary month out of the past 281 months in which the global average fell below the 20th century norm. (In a stable climate, you’d find an equal number of lines above and below that baseline.)
That’s what the science tells us.
An Italian version of the pope’s encyclical has been leaked early to the press, and after reading through translated sections of the document, it’s clear that Francis has paid a great deal of attention to what the scientists have been trying to tell us, even if some of his American followers refuse to do so. He writes:
“The climate is a common good of all and for all. It is, at a global level, a complex system connected to many essential conditions for human life. There is a very consistent scientific consensus indicating that we are in the presence of a disturbing heating of the climate system….”
It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanism, the changes in the orbit and the axis of the Earth, the solar cycle), but numerous scientific studies indicate that most of the global warming in recent decades it is due to the large concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others) mainly emitted due to human activity. Their concentration in the atmosphere prevents the heat of the solar rays reflected from the Earth to be dispersed in space.”
Now, let’s talk a bit about a possible solution. I get the strong sense that a lot of climate skeptics would be more open-minded about the topic if they were offered some hope that it could be addressed without large-scale economic disruption and a loss of competitive advantage. Until they have that hope, they will refuse to admit that the problem exists in the first place.
It’s important to acknowledge that the dilemma is quite real. Skeptics correctly point out that if we in the United States impose a carbon tax and other policies to address climate change, but other nations don’t, the scofflaws gain a significant economic advantage.** Their products will be cheaper than ours, their economies will outgrow ours, and in the end, their non-cooperation would render our own efforts much less effective in reducing greenhouse gases. We will have accomplished little but our economic decline.
So what do we do?
William Nordhaus, an economics professor at Yale with a long fascination with climate change and its interplay with economics, recently proposed a means to address that issue by enlisting market forces and capitalism on behalf of planetary climate stability, instead of against it.
Writing in American Economics Review, Nordhaus acknowledges that agreements such as the 1992 Kyoto Protocol were “doomed from the start,” suggesting that the United States was correct in refusing to ratify it. As a workable alternative, Nordhaus proposes the creation of a cartel of countries — a “Climate Club,” he calls it — in which all of its members agree to treat climate change as the threat it appears to be. The United States, the European Union, Japan and any other nations that join the Climate Club and that agree to impose policies such as a carbon tax on fossil fuels would be rewarded with free and open trade among other members of that group.
However, if a nation refused to join the club and refused to impose a carbon tax — let’s call this mythical nation “China” — it would be punished. For example, if this “China” wanted to sell goods to the United States or other club member, it could not do so unless it paid penalties in the form of tariffs. Those tariffs would have to high enough to more than offset the economic advantage that “China” tried to gain by doing nothing about climate change.
If addressing climate change raises the cost of goods produced by Climate Club members by 2 percent, for example, then every good imported from non-member countries would be assessed a penalty of at least 2 percent, and probably higher.
Like the carbon tax itself, such an approach attempts to enlist the forces of capitalism and self-interest as enforcers of climate-change action. If you profit more by joining the cartel than by being excluded from it, you will be wise to join the cartel.
In short, unlike the call to action by Pope Francis, it doesn’t rely on people doing the right thing. It sets up a system in which nations do the right thing because it also happens to be the economically smart thing to do. Given human nature, it’s the only kind of approach that could work.
(** NOTE: It’s another iteration of our old friend the free-rider problem, whom we know so well from debating ObamaCare.)