Globalist Perspective

Climate Politics in an Age of Uncertainty

What would it take for the U.S. political system to make a serious effort to confront climate change?


  • We often talk of greenhouse gases, but the greater uncertainties have to do with greenhouse liquids and solids.
  • Even if the threat of climate change does not spur Americans to action, the challenge of global economic competition may be enough.
  • There is a growing awareness that negative impacts of climate change could be worse than are being projected — or could be taking place right now.

To tackle climate change, we need to let the science speak for itself. That includes being honest about what we do not know.

We know that the planet is warming, but we don't know exactly how fast or how much. We know that humans are causing some or much of this, but we don't know exactly what that contribution is or will be. We know that places from Southern Nevada to sub-Saharan Africa will likely feel the impacts, but we don't know the magnitude.

Our society has long been divided between "know-it-alls" and “know-nothings.” But we are not a binary nation. In the middle of those two groups sit most Americans. They are dismissive of “know-nothings,” but they don't necessarily trust "know-it-alls." The following quote, from a leading foreign policy thinker, Walter Russell Mead, captures a reality about how these Americans view climate change:

"… the U.S. environmental movement has gotten itself on the wrong side of doubt. It has become the voice of the establishment, of the tenured, of the technocrats. It proposes big economic and social interventions and denies that unintended consequences and new information could vitiate the power of its recommendations. It knows what is good for us, and its knowledge is backed up by the awesome power and majesty of the peer-review process."

Mead has seen this in other foreign policy challenges, and it worries him. Lesson to all of us: It is important to embrace and not silence those who question the science of climate change. Skeptics are what move the scientific process forward.

But it is also important to acknowledge not only those who are skeptical that the planet is warming or that humans are causing it, but also those who find the current projections to be way too cautious.

This scientific uncertainty may actually be the most important reason that countries such as China and India have come to the table. There is a growing awareness that negative impacts of climate change could be worse than are being projected — or could be taking place right now. It is uncertainty about exactly how dramatic those changes will be that suddenly have China and India worried.

We often talk of greenhouse gases, but for me, the greater uncertainties have to do with greenhouse liquids and solids. Water is as critical — and as difficult to understand — as any part of the climate equation. Recent floods in Pakistan remind us that climate change leads to intense storms and droughts, as well as to the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers.

We can never know with certainty when the next hurricane or drought will hit. China and India both live in the shadow of the same Himalayan Mountains as Pakistan.

We also are only beginning to understand how water can help cut greenhouse gas emissions, including considerable water needed in natural gas exploration.

Likewise, we need to have a better understanding of the "solids" out there that contribute to climate change — especially "black carbon" or "soot." While we have largely addressed black carbon in the United States, it is underexplored in developing countries.

We also need to understand, and even embrace, economic uncertainty — both in the United States and overseas.

There are at least two more important sources of economic uncertainty — geopolitics and global competition. Nearly all transportation fuels depend on a global market that fluctuates wildly based on the latest crisis in the Middle East, Russia, Venezuela or sub-Saharan Africa.

Likewise, China and India are as dependent on those places as we are, and they have begun to notice that these are not the most stable regions of the world.

Whether solids, liquids or gases are the driving concern, leaders around the world recognize that clean energy technology is a key hedge against both climactic uncertainty and the uncertainty of the economics and politics of fossil fuels.

China hopes to spend $738 billion and India $110 billion on green technology. Along with Europe's continued leadership, that should be a cause for some optimism.

It is also a cause for concern for American efforts to stay globally competitive. Even if the threat of climate change does not spur us to action, economic competition may be enough.

The good news is that we can plan for that uncertainty now. What would a grand compromise on U.S. energy reform look like that would reflect a national consensus for change?

A true, bipartisan effort would attract support from moderates in both parties who have been reluctant to take a stand during this election season. But there are not likely to be enough moderates, so we need to stretch ourselves to think about what unites environmentalists and Tea Party members.

As the world's leading democracy, we should embrace that debate. Debate and uncertainty are not an excuse for paralysis. Instead, they are a call to prudent action. We must embrace politics as the art of the possible in the face of what we must hope is only a nearly impossible problem.

Editor's Note: This is Part II of a two-part excerpt from Bill Antholis' speech at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Clean Energy Forum on September 8, 2010. Read Part I here.

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About Bill Antholis

William J. Antholis is the managing director of the Brookings Institution.

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