Out of the Shadows: Climate Debate 2.0

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If you're a hardened climate-change warrior who believes that the science is settled, denial should be criminalized and dissent throttled, the verities via which you have straitjacketed the climate conversation over the last two decades are about to be challenged wholesale by an inconvenient truth about geoengineering the Earth. What is more, this new heresy is being spoken not by your nominal enemies but by your own comrades, a veritable fifth column.

In yesterday's Globe and Mail, profs David Keith (Harvard) and Edward Parson (UCLA) published an extraordinary appeal to the climate elect, among whom they count themselves. It opens with bad news. "[I]t is becoming increasingly likely that some form of climate engineering will be necessary to achieve the Paris target of limiting planetary heating to well below 2 C." From there the story gets even more alarming. "Most climate models agree that carefully managed solar geoengineering can reduce projected changes in both temperature and precipitation over nearly all the Earth's land surface. It can slow and likely reverse sea level rise, and provide some reduction to rapidly mounting threats to coral reefs, by slowing both rising temperatures and ocean acidification. It appears particularly effective at slowing current and projected increases in the strength of tropical hurricanes."  These three italicized sentences bear repeated reading. They are breathtaking.

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But you can see the problem. Profs Keith and Parson have proposed a "surprisingly promising" (their words) technological fix to the crisis of civilization-ending, extinction-inducing anthropogenic global warming. But they perceive that once this fix becomes widely known, it will shift the terms of the climate debate and undermine the IPCC-led imperative to decarbonize. As they put it themselves, "The reasonable fear that solar geoengineering may be exploited to obstruct needed emissions cuts underlies much of the resistance to bringing this topic out of the shadows." The worst case scenario? Before long they'll be reading Trump tweets like "Geoengineering is GREAT, no need to cut emissions."

Much of the Globe piece is devoted to the negotiation of international protocols governing geoengineering, which Keith and Parsons acknowledge will be "hard" and likely "ugly." They emphasize the need for continued research and the building of "trust." And they believe that Canada—with its avowed commitment to "international consultation" and "serious action on climate change"— is well-positioned to play a leading role. "Canadian engagement could steer international debate on how, and whether, these technologies can be developed and used, prudently and justly, in addressing the grave threat that climate change poses to this divided planet."

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Prudence, justice, gravity—this is the language of moral suasion that the climate-industrial complex has monopolized for decades. But now it is being deployed to soften up the ground for an internecine battle it never expected to go public. Terrifying people with doomsday warnings has been one of the primary means by which the climate "consensus" has been enforced—at least since Kyoto (1997) and arguably since Dr. James Hansen sounded the global-warming alarm in 1988. Persuading the world's anxious citizens to ignore a cheap and effective strategy for averting the coming apocalypse is a challenge entirely of the climate establishment's own making.

The next iteration of the climate debate, in short, won't require the scapegoating of the hated deniers, skeptics and agnostics. It will take place within the community of believers. And as Keith and Parson anticipate, it isn't going to be pretty.