Cal Thomas: Wrong on Climate Change

Cal Thomas's September 19 column makes a stab at a climate-change-debunking "a-ha!" moment, quoting a recent press report about Arctic ice in an attempt to demonstrate that the scientific consensus behind anthropogenic ("man-made") climate change is "losing evidentiary support." His argument falls short in a couple of serious respects, and his overall attitude glosses over the critical need for American society (and, yes, our government) to prepare for the effects of climate change.

Thomas approvingly quotes a Daily Mail story that says Arctic ice returned at a record pace in 2012, growing by 60 percent. In his view, this is evidence that predictions of an ice-free Arctic were completely off-the-mark. But as Slate's Phil Plait, an astronomer, conclusively demonstrates, this is the wrong way to interpret the statistic. Yes, Arctic ice did rebound, but that reclamation is so large because the earlier melt was also very drastic. Consider this: If I go to a casino with $1,000, lose $700 in one hour, and then make $300 in another hour, I have doubled my money over the course of an hour but suffered an overall loss. Indeed, for 2013 thus far, the average ice coverage is lower than it was at any point in 2012.

Thomas goes on the attack against "activists" for linking climate change to the current civil war in Syria. While no one suggests that climate change caused the Syrian civil war (that honor belongs to the misrule of Bashar al Assad), it is hard to ignore how drought and crop failures may have contributed to instability in urban centers in Syria by accelerating migration away from rural areas, as analysts Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell have argued.

Thomas should know it is not just fuzzy-headed "activists" who are concerned about the connection between a warming planet and armed conflict. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has specifically cited climate change in future threat assessments, concluding:

During the next 10 years, many regions will experience water challenges -- shortages, poor water quality, or floods -- that will increase the risk of instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important U.S. policy objectives.

ODNI is not alone. According to research from the American Security Project, a bipartisan organization dedicated to analyzing future threats, foreign defense organizations are also incorporating a climate lens into their security deliberations. Their Global Security Defense Index on Climate Change looked at the planning documents for 155 militaries around the world and found that 70 percent of them considered climate change to be a national-security threat.

In the domestic realm, Thomas bemoans the billions of dollars spent on "Chicken Little" projects to adapt to and mitigate the damage from climate change. In fact, the budgetary outlays have been fairly modest compared to the magnitude of the threat. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service finds that direct federal funding to address global climate change totaled only $77 billion from fiscal years 2008 to 2013 (around $19 billion per year). To put that in perspective, the U.S. government has already spent $65 billion on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which represents only a fraction of the anticipated future cost.

And the money is not being spent to rescue polar bears. The vast majority, 75 percent, is directed to technology development through the Department of Energy, with a specific focus on clean energy. This research and development is pioneered by a network of universities, laboratories, and private companies that will develop the next generation of electricity production in this country. Their insights will allow the United States to reap benefits that are advantageous not only for the climate, but also for Americans: Reduced demand for imported oil, less coal contributing to air pollution, and other efficiencies will bring down costs in the long-run.

In fairness to Thomas, predicting the exact damage that climate change causes from year to year is difficult. Scientists cannot say with confidence if this hurricane season will be worse than the previous or better than the next. Yet the American people should make no mistake: Climate change is here, the scientific consensus is that it is getting worse, and the cost of doing nothing would be catastrophic.

Luckily, the Obama administration gets it, as Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz demonstrated in his testimony to Congress just this week: "Common sense demands that we take action. As a policy issue, prudence suggests that we should take out an insurance policy, just like any family does on their home or automobile."

Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at The Century Foundation.

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