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May 19, 2013
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Mark 400, mark 3000: What’s the difference?

For all the talk about scandals in Washington, the news that caught my eye was the differing treatment accorded the latest benchmark in the global warming debate. Atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million earlier this month, as measured by two monitors installed in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

On the eve of the announcement, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed, “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide.” An atomic physicist, William Happer, of Princeton University, and a geologist-turned-astronaut, Harrison Schmitt (who also served a term as US senator from New Mexico), argued that the chemical compound had been “demonized.” In fact, they said, increasing carbon dioxide was a boon.

Higher atmospheric levels had “little correlation with global temperature,” the authors wrote, and none with more extreme weather. Instead more carbon dioxide would benefit humankind by increasing agricultural productivity, according to Happer and Schmitt. Commercial nursery operators routinely increase carbon dioxide levels in their greenhouses to 1,000 ppm, they added, to force the growth of plants. Indeed, the 400 ppm threshold was low by the standards of geological and plant evolutionary history: levels had been as high as 3,000 ppm or more 65 million years ago.

The next day The New York Times led the paper with the news that the “long-feared” 400 ppm threshold had been crossed. (The Financial Times ran the story on page one, too: “CO2 at highest level for millions of years.”)  NYT reporter Justin Gillis wrote that by studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists had concluded that for 800,000 years atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had fluctuated in a narrow band, from 180 ppm in the ice Ages to 280 ppm during the warm periods in between.  He quoted Ralph Keeling, who developed the first atmospheric-gases monitoring station in Hawaii, in 1958, on the significance of the news: “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds.”

The six-paragraph WSJ account that day, on page A4, was as uninflected as the Times story was pointed. The average concentration of carbon dioxide before the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was about 280 ppm, reporter Peter Landers noted; levels had been rising without interruption for the half-century since careful measurements began. President Obama’s efforts to restrict greenhouse gas emissions of new coal-fired power plants had run into legal opposition, he wrote. Republican lawmakers had warned that efforts to curb emissions “could harm the economic recovery.”

A few days later, the WSJ editorial page ran a letter from two Pennsylvania State University professors pointing out that at the time when carbon dioxide levels were at 3000 ppm 65 million years ago, there were no polar ice caps and more than 20 percent of present-day land area was submerged.

That, I thought, was a three-way difference of opinion about correlation vs. causation which was worth following. (The long-time independence of the WSJ’s generally perpendicular news columns from the paper’s famously conservative editorial page has appeared  to be continuing under the newspaper’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch.)

In contrast, the recent austerity/stimulus controversy, at least in the United States, has been trivial – Benghazi for progressives. It rests on the proposition, advanced by a handful of professional economists, that technocracy should somehow trump politics. Maybe in climate science; but not in economics – not any time soon, anyway, not in the United States.   (Europe is another matter:  see Martin Wolf of the Financial Times for the details.)

The sequester may be affecting the recovery, but the growth rate is not what the battle is about. The underlying controversy here has to do with narrative:  how the years since 1932 are to be understood. That was the US election that rejected the Republicans’ handling of the economy and led to the creation of a mixed economy. Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency also constituted something of an overture to the civil rights revolution of the twentieth century (the emancipation of women was already underway) though the movement accelerated only after the election of Harry Truman in 1948.

In one view (that of President Obama, for example, and other centrists), the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a salubrious event, a substantial technical correction that needed to be made.  In another view (that of historian Angus Burgin, author of The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression, for instance, and other progressives), it was a cunning theft. In still another view (that of most of today’s Republican leadership), it was a historic turning point, an opportunity to return to an era of simpler, less intrusive government, that has somehow been delayed for twenty years by the Democrats.

That’s the import of the IRS scandal, whatever it turns out to be. For the second time since Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, the Republicans, having failed to defeat a Democratic candidate at the polls, are determined across the board to stall his agenda in Congress and cripple him in his second term.  Let the rest be damned, they say, including climate change, until they have regained the initiative. Conservative leaders don’t see climate change as a problem. It seems fair to say that the Democrats, having succeeded in the same tactic (for good and sufficient reason) with Richard Nixon, tried again with Reagan and failed, but with very different results, since both Clinton and Obama made substantial compromises with the GOP agenda in order to get elected.

Neither its promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, nor the tactic of fierce Congressional tight-fistedness after the 2010 elections, succeeded in electing a Republican president.  Now conservative GOP leadership is hoping to make something of various low-grade scandals. It won’t work until compromises with the Democrats’ long-term agenda are made.

That’s why differences of opinion in conservative ranks over the significance of carbon dioxide emissions are so interesting. Economic Principals noted last month that two distinguished GOP sachems, men who command wide respect on both sides of the aisle – former Secretary of State George Shultz and Nobel Laureate Gary Becker – had advocated, also in the editorial pages of the WSJ, a revenue-neutral carbon tax designed to slow carbon dioxide emissions.

This schism in Republican ranks, between cautious conservatives and the go-for-broke variety, provides the best clue to the future.  Elections and economic growth will resolve the budget squabbles.  But nature itself  will settle the question of climate change, perhaps sooner than we think. Maybe it will turn out that there is nothing to worry about, as the leaders of the Congressional wing of the GOP seem to think. But I doubt it.

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One Comment

  1. dilbert dogbert wrote:

    My thoughts about climate change are about what the effects errors by climate scientists will have on the economy and what effects errors by the carbon industry will have on the economy. Seems to me that errors by the carbon industry will be many orders of magnitude greater than any errors by climate scientists. Carbon industry errors will be permanent and climate scientist errors will be temporary and fixed at low cost.

    Monday, May 20, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

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