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How the Media Corrupted Climate Policy – Worst-case scenarios now dominate the debate

By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.

It’s hard to credit people who say they care about climate change when they don’t bother to know anything about the subject. Or when they applaud proposals that would be extraordinarily expensive yet have no effect on the alleged problem and can only teach the public to become cynical about those who come bearing climate-related proposals.

But that’s the world we live in. Certainly, politicians do not volunteer to deliver more truth than we are willing to hear.

Where fraudulence is the norm, Joe Biden’s climate plan needs to be acknowledged for its slightly less fraudulent mien. It doesn’t ignore the rest of the world, as the Green New Deal does. Limply, without a hint of conviction, Mr. Biden proposes tariffs to force our agenda on countries whose emissions will actually determine the fate of climate change regardless of anything the U.S. does. It may not be plausible. It may be an undiluted realization of fears that President Trump’s penchant for tariffs is becoming the magic solvent for every problem. But at least it’s a placeholder in Mr. Biden’s plan for a recognition that efforts by the U.S., which accounts for less than 15% of global emissions, are an extravagant empty gesture if other countries don’t go along.

Mr. Biden also opens the door to nuclear power, without which honest persons in the climate debate (few and far between) know curbing CO2 is implausible.

Other candidates, let’s face it, have adopted the Green New Deal as a contentless virtue signal. Some opine that climate change is about to sink from sight in national politics thanks to various carbon-tax defeats around the world. It won’t. It will only grow in potency as a lever for self-interested groups to advance every kind of irrelevant proposal, though these will have zero meaningful impact on climate itself

In the latest development, a New York Times headline accuses the Trump administration of wanting to “put science on trial.” Why? Because it is trying to rein in agency shamanizing that uses centurylong, worst-case projections to mislead the public.

Not all administration efforts spring from the mind of Donald Trump. It’s hard to see this one as anything but a logical response to the media’s own disastrous bungling of last year’s U.S. National Climate Assessment. Virtually every story punted on a key metric. None bothered to relate the estimated climate damage risk—$500 billion a year by 2090—to the expected size of the U.S. economy, which would have tended to dampen the panic talk.

Not a single news report mentioned that this outcome was associated with an extreme worst-case temperature increase of more than 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Not one mentioned that the assessment relied on an emissions scenario, known as RCP 8.5, so extreme that it implies much bigger problems for future humanity than just a warmer climate.

Instead, just about every U.S. news story satisfied itself with shrill adjectives suggesting the report promised a climate doom that it didn’t.

It might interest you to know that, of the two-dozen-plus climate models consulted by scientific bodies, only one model, that of the Institute of Numerical Mathematics in Moscow, accurately simulates past climate changes. It also forecasts the least warming, about 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, under realistic emissions assumptions.

If the Trump administration is guilty of anything in this instance, it’s guilty of paying attention. All too routine has become the habit in official reports of piling up worst-case assumptions and extending them for a century, in hope of producing a headline number the media will misreport as it did in last November’s fiasco over the National Climate Assessment.

I mean every word of the following: Ignore climate-science reporting in major U.S. news organs. The press has given up wrestling with the limits of knowledge or accurately relaying the caveats tied to highly abstract computer models. If a worst-case scenario materializes, humanity will have recourse to relatively cheap geoengineering solutions to attempt to mitigate warming. In the meantime, there is no reason to believe the world will forcibly wean itself off fossil fuels. At the same time, the relentless hunt for efficiency and progress of technology will continue to reduce the carbon intensity of our industrial civilization. It’s even possible to think of cost-effective, pro-growth policies that would accelerate this progress. Unfortunately these lack the faux-heroic scale and price tags that excite the virtuous left nowadays.

The media, for whatever reason, has chosen a role for itself as a cheerleader for climate boondoggles. And the more specialized the media—the website Inside Climate News is your example here—the more completely it will devote itself to misleading the public about the true nature of the climate challenge in our democracy.

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Appeared in the July 6, 2019, print edition.