Any intelligent people want to have a serious debate? Allow me to play Devil's advocate. >;)
Every good argumentative piece needs a serious interlocutor, in order to avoid the nonsense that can stem from arguing against a hypothetical opponent—essentially someone’s construal or construction of the other side’s view. In taking the position that it is unfit, improper, and imprudent for governments to intervene with environmental regulatory policy in response to the indeterminate threat of climate change/global warming, I can derive from the world stage no better interlocutors than Sir Nicholas Stern and the Honorable Al Gore. Sir Stern advocated just such policies to Her Majesty’s Treasury, among other bodies in Her Majesty’s service, and the Hon. Gore did the same for his honorable friends and former colleagues in the United States Senate. Stern represents the more technical approach to demonstrating his arguments, while Gore represents the more public relations savvy, less-technical approach. I will respond to each to them in kind. My assumption is that the default position of the house (and the default state of government policy) is one of inaction, and that it is the proposers of the motion, so to speak, who must affirmatively prove their case that action is warranted. I respond to the distinguished gentlemen thusly:
Before evaluating the proponents of governmental responses I will outline the enabling conditions which must be met before government intervention is worthy of “merit” and then judge my interlocutors’ narratives to determine if they present sufficient argument, supported by sufficient merit to prove their cases. According to Jerry Taylor in a presentation to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, those conditions are:
A continued increase in the emission of greenhouse gases will increase global temperature; 2) An increase in average temperature will generate more costs than benefits; 3) Emissions controls are the most efficient means to prevent an increase in global temperature; 4) Early measures to control emissions are superior to later measures; 5) Emissions controls can be effectively monitored and enforced; 6) Governments of the treaty countries will approve the necessary control measures; 7) Controlling emissions is compatible with a modern economy. (Taylor, 1998)
Taylor characterized the support for each of these propositions as “surprisingly weak” (ibid.).
The Stern Review for the British House of Lords was an attempt to analyze the costs and benefits of climate change policy. The review was perhaps the most comprehensive report of its kind. The report serves as a sufficient introduction to a number of concepts that are important for thinking about environmental regulatory policy with respect to climate change. First, the report considers a deleterious climate event a risky but uncertain outcome, and government policy with regards to such a risk is essentially insurance against that risk; insurance for which the costs and potential benefits must surely be calculated (Stern, 2005-2006). The report also introduces what it refers to as “the uncertain science of climate change” (ibid.). So it goes: the Earth is warmed by a roughly non-variable stream solar radiation, roughly 30 percent of this radiation is reflected back into space and lost, the remainder is “re-radiated” into space, and some of this re-radiated radiation is absorbed on the way out by atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs) , the principal among these gases being carbon dioxide which is emitted by burning fossil fuels. There are feedback effects as absorbed energy causes further re-radiation and absorption of radiation energy at the Earth’s surface. These feedback effects are known as the “greenhouse effect.” This roughly non-variable solar radiation and greenhouse effect when acting as natural process purportedly maintain the stability of Earth’s temperature (the Earth’s average temperature is here presented as a static value of about 15°C). An enabling condition of the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases is the natural property of the gases themselves to diffuse at a higher rate than they decay. The truth of the anthropogenic nature of climate change is supposedly evidenced by the fact that there has been observed a punctuated increase the levels of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, since the Industrial Revolution (a certain former vice president made a certain movie where the centerpiece is an akward dramatization of this finding). This punctuated increase causes an accelerated greenhouse effect, and this acceleration in the greenhouse effect causes Earth’s surface to warm. Perhaps ironically, it turns out that the evidence from all this heating comes from the ice. Scientists study trapped gases in polar ice cores to estimate concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide for millenia, and this is how they get their data.
The picture gets more complicated. The constituents of this atmospheric study are GHG emissions, concentrations, temperatures, and the effect of emissions on temperatures, called forcing (the polarity of which can be either positive or negative as some GHGs cause warming and others cause cooling). According to the report, “The exact relationships between emissions, concentrations, forcing and temperature change are not known with certainty” (ibid.). The climate system with respect to its atmospheric aspects is non-linear and exhibits time lags (and I will infer that it is dynamic since it is part of a continuous process of radiation and absorption with the physical constituent elements being gas particles in motion which constitute the atmosphere and, if this climate science is correct, define its parameters with their composition). Given all this complexity and uncertainty we are expected to believe that there is a consensus among international scientists about the nature and direction of the causal relationships involved as well as the empirical future state of the system as a whole. It seems like climate scientists are not particularly risk-averse if they are willing to go out on such a limb, or perhaps these are the effects of group think.
I’ll take this as a point of departure. Carter, et alia, criticize the science of the Stern Review, characterizing the conclusions as “over-confident” and note two larger scale problems with the report:
First, that it greatly understates the extent of uncertainty, for there are strict limits to what can be said with assurance about the evolution of complex systems that are not well understood. Second, that (sic) its treatment of sources and evidence is selective and biased. (Byatt, 2006)
On the first of the larger scale weaknesses in the Stern Review, it is quite clear from the Review’s own treatment of the science that many of the asserted conclusions are based on relationships between GHG emissions and climate changes, and projections that predict further carbon emissions may lead to dramatic climate changes that the Review is straining to demonstrate. The Carter critique accuses the Stern Review of relying on computer models which dismiss the “possibility that carbon dioxide emissions may have minor or benign effects” (ibid.) The Carter critique argues that Stern failed to properly take account of the tremendous uncertainty of a non-linear dynamical system and the virtual impossibility of predicting the future states of such a system, misrepresenting a miniscule set of reliable data, and placing undue emphasis on tail-risk scenarios, as well as, to some extent, begging the question.
However, even though the science of climate change may be deeply flawed, the economic arguments for intervention may be even more tenuous. Byatt, et alia, responded to the economic facets of the Stern Review, and they admit this response is supported by the foundations laid by the scientific critique (ibid.). They noted earlier critiques which state that the mathematical modeling of the Stern Review is to some degree inscrutable to outsiders. Sacrificing some considerable specificity for brevity, the Byatt critique says that the Stern Review overstated the benefits of intervention while understating the costs replacement energy sources; has biased selectivity of economic literature upon which to support its arguments; given the structure of economic activity in industrial societies climate has muted impact on economic activity; the time horizon of effects Stern considers makes for strained applications of economic techniques of prediction, furthermore no adaptability is assumed to exist for the economic actors under study over this time horizon. There is also much controversy over the Stern Review techniques of discounting.
To be fair, the Stern Review’s authors set out to do something extremely difficult and ambitious, and mistakes in such an endeavor are to be expected. However, the Stern Review’s conclusions rest on highly uncertain science, highly unusual economics, and display a biased tendency toward stating dear costs of climate changes and dear benefits of rapid response and relatively meager costs of this response. The Review comes to the conclusions to which it is biased, in the face of questionable evidence and on a topic which by nature involves a great deal of uncertain and unreliable predictability. This is quite an indictment of the efforts of Stern and his co-contributors.
In 2009, the Honorable Mr. Al Gore gave a testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he gave an assessment of the clear and present danger of climate change. His predictions were quite dire, “Our home – Earth – is in grave danger. What is at risk of being destroyed is not the planet itself, of course, but the conditions that have made it hospitable for human beings” (Gore, 2009). His diagnosis for all that ails the nation: “dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels” (ibid.). His prescription: 1) pass President Obama’s economic recovery package, which included investments in energy efficiency, renewable sources of energy, reforming the electric grid, and “clean” cars; 2) putting a price tag on carbon through a cap-and-trade system; 3) immediately become a party to the Copenhagen treaty.
A response to the testimony of Gore from the Science and Public Policy Institute stated Gore’s testimony “contained no scientific information” (Monckton, 2009). The response also says that Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth movie contained “35 serious scientific errors.”The response goes on to state that global surface temperatures have fallen since the release of Gore’s movie; that Gore falsely labels CO2 as a pollutant, and that additional atmospheric CO2 has spurred growth in U.S. florae; that contrary to Gore, even the IPCC only projects moderate increases in the sea level over the next century; that “the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has been increasing at a rate well below the IPCC’s range of official projections;” that Senator Gore initially voted against the Kyoto Protocol, and that the Copenhagen treaty was a one-sided economic disaster-in-waiting for the West. This has the makings of a devastating critique. However, devastation is superfluous here. Gore’s error-ridden public communications fail to make sufficient reference to or produce generation of valid arguments based on empirical data informed by scientific theory. Therefore, Gore’s dire predictions do not appear to be warranted by the force of these arguments. Full stop. Economic concerns in relation to his solution framework are rendered trivial (though as stated above they do exist).
Not one of Taylor’s seven necessary conditions has been demonstrated by Stern and Gore at present. I do not say that because counter-arguments of skeptics merely render them in controversy or equipoise (though the critiques cited here are among a larger body of work which is to say the least countervailing). I do not find the material of their arguments to be persuasive on the established grounds and I make a motion that they be rejected on the merits. I believe it is true that positive action may be warranted in response to risks in issues of great complexity where there exists consequent uncertainty. But I also believe, and I think Taylor’s conditions call for this, that a basic decision rule should be that there must exist in these instances evidence of a risk which could be characterized as “plausible” rather than merely “speculative”. This is to prevent alarmism. I do not see such evidence here. An alternative explanation for not finding sufficient evidence is that either I have not surveyed a sufficient sample of these authors’ works or that these authors do not represent a sufficient sample of climate change theory proponents. Failure on either of these grounds is capable of being demonstrated, probably even in isolation from the other, and would falsify the conclusions presented here by the present author. Thanks for reading.
Byatt, I. et al. (2006). The Stern Review: A Dual Critique. World Economics , 165-232.
Gore, A. (2009). Statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, As Prepared, Hon. Al Gore. Washington, D.C.: Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Monckton, C. (2009, February 13). A Response to Al Gore’s Senate Testimony of January 28, 2009. Science & Public Policy Institute. Retrieved April 16, 2011, from ScienceandPublicPolicy.org: http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/...
Stern, N. et al. (2005-2006). The Economic Effects of Climate Change. London: The House of Lords Select Committe on Economic Affairs.
Taylor, J. (1998, January 19). Cato Institute. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from www.cato.org: http://www.cato.org/...
 To be fair, what Taylor intended these conditions to be necessary for was merit worthy international action—that is the coordinated international actions of governments. That is a particular species of government intervention. However, I can say by exercising a modicum of judgment that both Stern and Gore believe that international governmental action is needed in order to address the problem in a manner timely enough to prevent serious consequences. If it seems improper to use a skeptic’s conditions to set the terms of the debate, let me be clear, my judgment does not lead me to believe that these conditions represent an insurmountable hurdle. Furthermore, I will stipulate that if some set of them were to be clearly satisfied, merely suggestive evidence for the complement may be sufficient for justifying action. It should also be noted that Taylor is quoted in this piece with formatting.
 The title of the report was “The Economic Effects of Climate Change” by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic affairs but has come to be known as the Stern Review or the Stern Report, as its principal author was London School of Economics economist Sir Nicholas Stern. Apparently part of the motivation for the review was the not inconsiderable distrust of politicized climate scenarios and reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as skepticism of the enforcement mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, and the potential effectiveness of such existing international efforts. It is essentially the work of legislators--draw whatever conclusions are deemed appropriate.
 IPCC research from the following year also characterized carbon dioxide as “the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas” and used a similar vocabulary as the Stern Review when talking about these issues. However, to the IPCC climate change refers to natural or anthropogenic variability in the climate, whereas for the Framework Convention on Climate Change—the promulgator of the Kyoto Protocol—only anthropogenic changes in the climate are referred to as climate change. I do not know where Stern stands on this very essential matter of nomenclature. After all, no one would want to make disingenuous statements about “climate change” due to a problem of equivocation. Alley, R. e. (2007). Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC Secretariat World Meteorological Organization.
 The report even suggests a “radical” target of 550 ppm by 2100. Other scientists say, “The upper safety limit for atmospheric CO2 is 350 parts per million (ppm)” (http://co2now.org/).