Together, science and capitalism built the modern world. But across the political spectrum, both are under attack. If we are to solve our greatest challenges, including climate change, we have to deploy the power of these twin engines of civilization.
The best available research confirms the existence of human-driven climate change, including the rapid pace of global warming. Leading scientists’ predictions of temperature rise have been largely accurate. In the three decades since NASA climate scientist James Hansen first warned Congress that global warming had begun, the U.S. and other nations have poured billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, and the planet has continued to warm.
Most climate models predicted warming above the mid-20th-century average of about 1 degree Celsius by 2016. They were right. Atmospheric scientists predicted increased frequency of extreme-heat events, and they were right, too. Scientists also predicted warming would be most apparent in East Asia and the Arctic, and it is.
These results aren’t surprising, given that they are based on many independent data sets. Measurements are collected by towers, buoys, aircraft, satellites and more, and are assessed by thousands of scientists world-wide.
It’s a sign of the reliability of this research that the insurance industry, with trillions in liability at stake, uses it to determine financial models. Most businesses can’t afford to have “political” opinions about climate change. For companies facing potential impacts from climate trends, to deny warming would be like Macy’s pretending online shopping isn’t disrupting retail.
Unfortunately, skeptics have fostered doubt about climate change by misrepresenting the research. Some have claimed that Mr. Hansen’s models failed to predict temperatures accurately, but these evaluations use measurements based on major calibration errors. Researchers critical of mainstream climate science also have expressed doubt about the growing intensity of extreme-weather events, which in fact are more intense than they were 30 years ago, due to warmer oceans and other climate-related factors. And many have suggested that the rise of global temperature has paused or plateaued recently, though reliable records show this isn’t the case. Onetime climate skeptic Jerry Taylor, a former vice president of the Cato Institute, changed his views when he reread Mr. Hansen’s testimony and realized its predictions were “spot on.”
Arguments about climate science may be useful for politicians looking to whip up voters, but misinformation doesn’t help us plan to protect future economic growth. Citigroup estimates the cost of unchecked climate change will be in the tens of trillions. The president of the Reinsurance Association of America says global warming could bankrupt his industry. Even fossil-fuel companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell have expressed the urgent need to manage the risks of climate change.
This brings us back to capitalism. Climate change is a byproduct of the prosperity created by the market economy, but the market similarly can be an engine to generate cost-effective solutions. Clean-energy technologies such as wind and solar power already have developed immensely in the past two decades. Public policy that puts a price on carbon emissions would speed the adoption of clean energy by exposing the market to the costs this pollution puts on society. This will accelerate adoption of and private investment in clean-energy technologies.
Though climate change presents American industries a daunting challenge, market-based policies can unleash innovation from investors, inventors and entrepreneurs, who will work to build a more prosperous and safer future. Working with accurate scientific facts and the right incentives, the market will find winning solutions.
So let’s follow the data and get this done.