Any real debate about climate change should start with a proper sense of scale.
Comedian John Oliver got the proportions right in a bit for his weekly HBO show. Instead of the usual head-to-head, pro-con format, he put three skeptics of climate change on one side — 97 scientists on the other.
“I can’t hear you over the weight of scientific evidence!” Oliver shouted at the skeptics, over the din.
That lopsided proportion represents the consensus of the scientific community: mankind is screwing up the planet.
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But ask some local political candidates, and climate change is still an open question. In Seattle Times editorial board endorsement interviews, we’ve asked some basic questions. Does climate change exist? Does humankind play a role? What should we do about it?
And then we’ve watched otherwise smart candidates say the darndest things.
Take state Sen. Andy Hill, a moderate Republican from Redmond, former Microsoft manager, Harvard MBA and lead Senate budget writer.
“Climate change — very partisan thing, hair on fire,” said Hill.
“You’re talking about very different data sets. You can find scientists on either side of the issue,” said Hill, who acknowledged he hasn’t “looked at the data.” Instead, he talked about weaning the U.S. off foreign oil for security and economic reasons.
Acknowledging the basic facts of climate change — that it exists, and the explosion of carbon emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Age are a cause — is important because the “What do we about it?” question offers a real debate.
The gold standard to answer the first two is the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-affiliated task force of more than 3,500 experts. Its conclusions — which must be agreed upon, line by line, by 120-some nations — have solidified over a series of five reports since 1988.
The fifth IPCC report, issued this year, concluded that “ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct,” as summarized by The New York Times.
The report concludes it is “extremely likely” — a probability of 95 to 100 percent — that humans are “the dominant cause” of a warming planet. In the carefully hedged lexicon of science, that’s as unequivocal as it gets.
Jim Kellett, a financial adviser running for state Senate in Snohomish as a Republican, is unconvinced. “I’m not seeing a hypothesis that has been put forward as to definitively answer the question one way or the other,” he told The Times editorial board.
The questions tripped up Democrats, too. State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, a climate-change believer, talked about a toxic “yellow haze” from trees as a problem. “Never having been a tree, I don’t know all their inner workings,” she said.
I asked Todd Myers, who writes about climate change for the right-leaning Washington Policy Center, why candidates get high-centered on the questions.
“When you ask the question ‘Is it real?’ what’s going on in people’s minds is, what am I committing to if I say this?” said Myers, who cites the IPCC report as his benchmark.
Carbon taxes, or a cap-and-trade system, which Gov. Jay Inslee advocated for in his book on climate change, have big, uncertain fiscal consequences.
“That doubt in the back of their minds makes them hem and haw.” Myers said.
Answering the “What do we do?” question is an important policy question — maybe the most important one over the next decade. But to get there, we have to get to yes on the first two questions.
Jonathan Martin’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org