Unsettled science and politics

Holman W. Jenkins Jr.:

Congrats are due for the term “climate denialist,” which in 2016 migrated from Paul Krugman’s column to the news pages of the New York Times.

On Dec. 7, the term ascended to a place of ultimate honor when it figured in the headline, “Trump Picks Scott Pruitt, Climate Change Denialist, to Lead E.P.A.”

Unfortunately, never to be explained is precisely which climate propositions one must deny in order to qualify as a denialist. In zinging Mr. Pruitt, currently Oklahoma’s attorney general, the Times rests its unspoken case on a quote from an article this year in National Review, in which he and a coauthor wrote: “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

The Rockefeller family’s charitable attachment to the climate cause is understandable, though. Their money might instead be used to bring clean water to poor villages, immunize kids against disease, or improve education. But such programs can be evaluated and found wanting due to fraud or incompetence, whereas climate change is a cause to which money can safely be devoted to no effect whatsoever without fear of criticism.

Twenty years before his successor became Mr. Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, Exxon’s then-CEO Lee Raymond gave a much vilified speech in China—a much misrepresented speech, too.

He did not say humans were not influencing climate, but the degree was highly uncertain, and future warming was not a “rock-solid certainty,” he said.

He could not have known he was speaking near the peak of an observed warming trend, and that relatively little or no warming would be recorded over the next 20 years.

He said poor countries would and should choose economic growth over suppressing fossil fuel use. They did, and some one billion fewer people today are living in extreme poverty (as defined by the World Bank).

He said fossil energy would continue to fuel economic prosperity, though consumption growth would moderate with increased efficiency, and as poor countries devoted a share of their increasing wealth to environmental improvement. He was right.

He predicted that technology would open up new reserves to fuel the global economy, though he didn’t mention and perhaps didn’t know about fracking.

All in all, it was a performance, in many fewer words, far more cogent than the Rockefeller pieces, notable mainly for their childishness about both climate science and climate politics.

Donald Trump, our new president-elect, has been tagged for indiscriminately referring to climate change as a hoax. Here’s what he actually said at a campaign rally in South Carolina one year ago about climate advocacy: “It’s a money-making industry, OK? It’s a hoax, a lot of it.”

This statement, with its clearly framed qualifications, is true and accurate in every detail. It’s a statement of basic truth that can be embraced, and increasingly should be, by exactly those people most concerned about man-made climate change.

Yet it won’t be, for reasons demonstrated by the New York Times’ adoption of the term climate denialist, whose deliberately non-discriminating function we now take care to state precisely: It enables a kind of journalism that is unable—incapacitates itself—to stumble on truths that would be inconvenient to climate religion.

 

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