Happy Birthday, Global Warming: Climate Change at 33, by Rupert Darwall

Global warming has feathered many nests, evoked many apocalyptic warnings, none of which have come to pass, and led to the passage of treaties and accords that mostly don’t cover the world’s biggest contributors to greenhouse emissions but will cripple Western economies. From Rupert Darwall at realclearenergy.org:

This month, climate change celebrates its 33rd birthday. On June 23, 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified that the greenhouse effect had been detected. “Global Warming Has Begun,” The New York Times declared the next day. Indeed, it had. A year older than Alexander the Great when he died, climate change took less than one-third of a century to conquer the West.

Four days earlier, the Toronto G7 had agreed that global climate change required “priority attention.” Before the month was out, the Toronto climate conference declared that humanity was conducting an uncontrolled experiment “whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.” In September, Margaret Thatcher gave her famous speech to the Royal Society, warning of a global heat trap. “We are told,” although she didn’t say by whom, “that a warming of one degree centigrade per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope,” an estimate that turned out to be a wild exaggeration. Observed warming since then has been closer to one-tenth of one degree centigrade per decade. Two months later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) held its inaugural meeting in Geneva.

The tendency to catastrophism was present at the outset of global warming. The previous year, at a secretive meeting of scientists that included the IPCC’s first chair, it had been recognized that traditional cost-benefit analysis was inappropriate, on account of the “risk of major transformations of the world of future generations.” The logic of this argument requires that climate change be presented as potentially catastrophic—otherwise, the cure would appear worse than the putative disease.

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