There is very little doubt left that global warming is happening, is accelerating, and can be traced to greenhouse gas emissions from humans, chiefly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. As Gregg Easterbrook notes, the debate about global warming is over, and "the consensus of the scientific community has shifted from skepticism to near-unanimous acceptance of an artificial greenhouse effect." Right up to the mid-1990s or thereabouts the evidence was sketchy and incomplete. No more. In 2004, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (in the journal Science) declared that there was "no longer any substantive disagreement in the scientific community" that artificial global warming is real, and of great concern. And the world agrees. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared unequivocally that the scientific consensus was that climate is being altered by human activities.
How much real disagreement is out there? Well, none. Of the 928 technical peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, zero disagreed with the consensus. But you won't know this from the popular debate. As Al Gore points out in An Inconvenient Truth, in its zeal for "balance", the media always drags out some contrarian to debunk global warming, creating the illusion that the issue is still up in the air. And who are these debunkers? Mostly shills for the oil companies. For example, much of the attack on Gore's work has been produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received millions from Exxon-Mobil in the last few years.
Elements of the right-wing still vehemently deny the existence of global warming. For some, denying global warming is a badge of honor. The New Republic exposes some of the more shameful attempts to swift-boat the issue by appealing to pseudo-science: see here and here. Senator James Inhofe famously called global warming a hoax. And the flat earth brigade can be found at the usual places: the National Review and the editorial page of the Wall Street journal. As noted by the New Republic, Iain Murray from the National Review merely "recycles industry talking points on National Review's website from his perch at the Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute". And Robert Pollock from the Journal spins the science upside down and tries to argue (erroneously) that most of the temperature increase took place prior to 1940.
Why does the right-wing persist in this stubbornness? Selfishness? Narcissism? A cult of materialism? A view of American exceptionalism that gives it license to ignore the rest of the world? A postmodernist form of moral relativism that denies truly independent reporting or even a set of mutually agreed upon facts? Disdain for Al Gore, and a refusal to accept that he was right all along? Probably all of the above.
But what does this mean for the future? Here Jim Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute, provides come clues. Reflecting the scientific consensus, he argues that the baseline view is for an increase in temperatures by 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the century. In his alternative scenario, predicated on strong Kyoto-style action to curb carbon dioxide emissions, it would rise by only 2 degrees. To put it bluntly, five degrees would be catastrophic. This increase would certainly bring about the disintegration of the ice sheets, with all the attendant consequences that Al Gore discussed so eloquently. The last time the earth was this warm (three million years ago), the oceans were 80 feet higher. This would displace 50 million in the United States (including all the major east coast cities), 250 million in China, 150 million in India, and 120 million in Bangladesh. Staggering. In fact, scientists agree that Gore gets it right. The only issue they quibble with is one of timing, as it may take a couple of centuries for the ice sheets to melt. But as Gore shows as well, the effects of global warming are accelerating in recent years, outstripping the predictions of climate change models, from Greenland to Antarctica.
Hansen notes that it is not too late to reverse course, but that we are approaching a tipping point. His 2 degree alternative scenario would still cause the sea level to rise, but it would be more manageable. But getting on this more sustainable trajectory requires action now. When the US imposed tough fuel efficiency standards in the 1970s, global carbon dioxide emissions fell from 4 percent to 1-2 percent a year. But, partly due to the SUV craze, the US still only half as energy-efficient as Europe, because Europe relies on fossil fuel taxes that seem anathema in the US. And yet the Bush administration refuses to get tough on the emissions front, either through taxation or minimum fuel efficiency standards. Carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 2 percent a year over the past decade. If this continues for another decade, the alternative scenario is off limits, and all bets are off. The US is responsible for 30 percent of all emissions from fossil fuels to date (China and Russia are the next largest, each with 8 percent). So it is a largely US problem. California now requires a 30 percent reduction in automobile greenhouse gas emissions by 2016. What does the Bush administration do? Joins the auto makers to fight it in court.
Hansen makes a clear moral point about the US role, asking: "When nations must abandon large parts of their land because of rising sea levels, what will our liability be? And will our children, as adults in the world, carry a burden of guilt, as Germans carried after World War II, however unfair inherited blame may be". Indeed. This is at the end of the day a moral issue, possibly the defining moral issue of our time. And yet you rarely hear about it from the denizens of morality. It doesn't make any "non-negotiable" list. The way to justify this complacency is (i) deny the problem exists; (ii) discount the welfare of future generations. The first option is unacceptable (and becoming more so) in light of the prevailing scientific consensus. The much-abused concept of "prudential judgment" is all about applying morality to new facts and circumstances. It is not an excuse to dismiss something that bumps up against secular ideology. Just because the Church has not pronounced definitively on global warming does not give us license to ignore it. And the second option is also not palatable, as it adopts a utilitarian calculus that values future generations less than those alive today. That too is immoral.