Digging In

Settled and Unsettled Questions

I wrote this op-ed for the La Crosse (WI) Tribune (originally published on 6/29/2015).

Stop Debating Climate Change and Start Acting

by Casey Meehan

As I follow the discourse concerning global climate change, three questions tend to be at the heart of most discussions I hear: Is anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change happening? Do scientists agree about the existence of global climate change? And what should we do about it?

It turns out that global climate change is a controversial topic among the public in part because people hold differing beliefs about which of these questions is open for debate in the first place. Indeed, the brouhaha over Pope Francis' encyclical backing the scientific consensus and calling for action is a prime example.

Democracy demands open and lively debate; however, climate science experts consider much of what we argue about–for instance, whether anthropogenic climate change is happening and whether scientific consensus exists–as settled.

The scientific theory that human activity is the root cause of recent global climate change is empirically sound. In the parlance of science, a theory is a testable set of ideas that explains how something in nature works. Examples of scientific theories include the Big Bang, natural selection, and Einstein's general relativity. These are not simply hunches: each continues to stand up to tests designed to disprove them. Every alternative hypothesis put forth to explain global climate change–natural variations in the orbit of the earth, a change in the intensity of the sun, El Niño,–has been considered, tested, and nullified.

To what degree do experts agree on anthropogenic climate change? Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists who are actively publishing in the field have come to believe that climate change is happening and human activity is largely to blame. Moreover, nearly 200 scientific organizations around the world have publicly proclaimed the same. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that few phenomena attain this type of wide-spread agreement among scientists.

While I don't advocate for blindly following experts, a reasonable person must concede that the evidence just doesn't warrant continued debate on whether climate change exists or whether scientists agree.

Instead, let's devote our time and energy to the question that ought to be open for robust public debate: What should we do about global climate change?

The options here are wide open, though what I've learned through my research leads me to believe that we should move forward on two equally important fronts.

First, we must build our communities' capacities for resilience to climate disruptions. Resilience in this context refers to the ability to bounce back from climatic disturbances while still being able to function.

Evidence strongly suggests that something is climatically amiss across Wisconsin and the rest of the globe. In the Coulee Region we've already witnessed significant increased average temperatures and precipitation since 1950. Reliable projections indicate that by 2055 we'll experience more intense storms, longer dry spells, and nearly a month more per year of days over 90 degrees. That means more flooding, more wind-damage, more crop failure, and more insect-borne diseases. What actions can we take now so that our economies, municipalities, human, animals, and plants can bounce back from these disruptions?

Second, in order to deter the most severe effects of global climate change, we need to put in place policies that mitigate–on a large scale–our greenhouse gas emissions.

Lest you dismiss this as a partisan approach, data indicates that massively reducing carbon emissions enjoys widespread popularity among the U.S. public. Over 60 percent of U.S. residents support setting strict limits on the carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants and requiring utilities to produce at least one-fifth of their energy using renewable sources.

Another approach that is gaining attention is a carbon fee and dividend. Under this scenario the government imposes a fee from fossil fuel companies for each ton of carbon dioxide they bring to the market. One hundred percent of the revenue collected is returned in equal proportions to every U.S. household in the form of monthly dividends. Studies suggest that the vast majority of households–particularly low and middle income households–will actually receive more in dividends than they pay in increased energy costs.

Climate change need not be doom and gloom. Rather, this challenge gives us the opportunity to re-envision how we want our communities to operate in a manner that is more responsible–and just–for all residents. First, though, we need to stop debating where no debate exists.

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