The climate change meetings in Paris have reached what the delegates describe as an “historic agreement.” It offers bright goals and much food for cynicism. One must suspect, for instance, that the $100 billion a year the developed nations will transfer to developing nations to help them with their green efforts may do more to enhance the Chinese navy and support London real estate than cool the planet. What is most disappointing, however, has less to do with what is written in the agreement than with how the discussions proceeded, in these meetings and in the climate change debate generally. Those who worry most intensely about climate change seem unwilling to engage any skeptical arguments. Instead, they vilify any who question anything they say, usually by noting a skeptic’s commercial link or worse, an association with a conservative think tank. It is too bad. The subject is simply too important and deserves a proper scientific inquiry. It is also a dangerous way to proceed, for those who press the climate change agenda are no less vulnerable to accusations of self-interest.
Take the United Nations. Its scientists and bureaucrats have issued many dire warnings about climate change, holding one major conference a year since 1995 in which they have broadcast their fears of imminent planetary disaster. At this year’s conclave, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon freely used the word “catastrophe.” UN forecasts are seldom specific enough to test against subsequent reality, but the rhetoric is always intense. What raises suspicions about UN motives however is less the drama than the “solutions” its people propose. These inevitably include the need for UN scientists and bureaucrats to gain more influence in the direction of global economic activity. They also often claim for the UN the proceeds of a proposed carbon tax or a levy on currency transactions or a “billionaire’s tax” or all three. Such a link to UN power, prestige, and finances cannot help but raise suspicions that its people are perhaps not quite as disinterested as they claim.
And it is not just the UN. Scientists everywhere and “intellectuals” generally, as well as politicians, government bureaucrats, and people involved in NGOs, all have much to gain for themselves by exaggerating the emergency. There is certainly a pecuniary, if not a commercial interest, for intensified concerns will cause grant monies to flow more liberally. On top of this is the lure of personal power, which cannot help but rise as the supposed need for action gives intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats power to direct economic endeavor in ways other than consumers and markets would and, incidentally, also gives them larger staffs to supervise and bigger paychecks to go along with them.
Then there are the billionaires. Having made fortunes in technology, internet applications, and investing, many have now decided to fight climate change by altering the direction of the economy. Without doubting their sincerity, there is nonetheless reason to suspect their motivations. These people, after all, used a dynamic economic environment to displace an older business establishment. They know that the biggest threat to their present position of remarkable influence comes less from government or the courts or even the UN’s “billionaire’s tax” than from newcomers who might develop better technologies and surplant them as leaders, as they did others. What better way to protect their positions than by ridding the economy of the dynamism that once served them? And little can do that quite so effectively as a more centralized, government-directed business environment, especially one in which they play a big role.
Of course, all this potential gain may be entirely coincidental. Even if something redounds to an institution’s or an individual’s benefit, it may still be real and urgent. By the same token, a counterargument from someone vaguely affiliated with Exxon or a pro-business group may also have substance. Neither position deserves any more skepticism than the other. Logic and charity argue against accusations of insincerity on either side of the question. If the debate can rise embrace a presumption of good will, it will benefit from an emphasis on substance instead of distracting ad hominem attacks.