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A New Climate-Change Consensus

By Fred Krupp (The Wall Street Journal) - August 7, 2012

One scorching summer doesn’t confirm that climate change is real any more than a white Christmas proves it’s a hoax. What matters is the trend—a decades-long march toward hotter and wilder weather. But with more than 26,000 heat records broken in the last 12 months and pervasive drought turning nearly half of all U.S. counties into federal disaster areas, many data-driven climate skeptics are reassessing the issue.

Respected Republican leaders like Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey have spoken out about the reality of climate change. Rupert Murdoch’s recent tweet—”Climate change very slow but real. So far all cures worse than disease.”—may reflect an emerging conservative view. Even Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, during public comments in June, conceded the reality of climate change while offering assurances that “there will be an engineering solution” and “we’ll adapt.”

Even if my outlook differs, these views may turn out to be a welcome turning point. For too long, the U.S. has had two camps talking past each other on this issue. One camp tended to preach and derided questions about climate science as evidence of bad motivation. The other camp claimed that climate science was an academic scam designed to get more funding, and that advocates for action were out to strangle economic growth. Charges of bad faith on both sides—and a heavy dose of partisan politics—saw to it that constructive conversation rarely occurred.

If both sides can now begin to agree on some basic propositions, maybe we can restart the discussion. Here are two:

The first will be uncomfortable for skeptics, but it is unfortunately true: Dramatic alterations to the climate are here and likely to get worse—with profound damage to the economy—unless sustained action is taken. As the Economist recently editorialized about the melting Arctic: “It is a stunning illustration of global warming, the cause of the melt. It also contains grave warnings of its dangers. The world would be mad to ignore them.”

The second proposition will be uncomfortable for supporters of climate action, but it is also true: Some proposed climate solutions, if not well designed or thoughtfully implemented, could damage the economy and stifle short-term growth. As much as environmentalists feel a justifiable urgency to solve this problem, we cannot ignore the economic impact of any proposed action, especially on those at the bottom of the pyramid. For any policy to succeed, it must work with the market, not against it.

If enough members of the two warring climate camps can acknowledge these basic truths, we can get on with the hard work of forging a bipartisan, multi-stakeholder plan of action to safeguard the natural systems on which our economic future depends.

Many conservatives start out as climate skeptics for understandable reasons. To begin with, it’s an issue that’s long been associated with liberal Democrats. We’re all skeptical about issues presented by leaders with whom we normally disagree. Secondly, conservatives naturally insist on extensive evidence when a claim seems to justify more government action.

But one of the hallmarks of modern conservatism is to try to see the world as it is, not as one hopes it would be. Skeptics who make their decisions based on the best available information have long said they would reconsider their conclusions as the facts dictate. And many of them are concluding that the planet is warming in ways that outpace its natural rhythms. In a recent University of Texas poll, 70% of Americans, and 53% of Republicans, accepted the reality of climate change. This is not just a function of the summer’s brutal heat.

In a 2011 study, funded in part by the climate-skeptical industrialists David and Charles Koch, University of California, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller (also a climate skeptic) confirmed that temperatures have been climbing over the past five decades. His conclusion: “You should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”

Mr. Muller’s Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature research project has since come out with a new analysis of global temperatures over the past 250 years. From that analysis, currently under review by the scientific community and available on the project’s website, he concludes that climate change is “almost entirely” due to greenhouse-gas pollution.

That gases such as carbon dioxide and methane can trap heat is an undisputed matter of basic physics. But what is most telling is that as concentrations of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased, the global average temperature has increased in near-unison.

Agreeing with Mr. Muller does not necessarily require conservatives to embrace more government regulation. To the contrary, they should promote policies that fit their views of government and the market. One example is the revolution in natural gas. It makes environmentalists uncomfortable, but we cannot afford to ignore this potentially lower carbon fuel. CIA Director David Petraeus had it right when he said in May in an interview at Dickinson College, “assuming it can be done in an environmentally safe way, which is obviously a must, [natural gas] is going to provide an incredible boost to our economy.” The key is ensuring that methane leaks in the system don’t undermine the carbon advantages of gas, and that our groundwater remains clean and safe.

We’ll have a much better shot at developing solutions to our climate and energy problems that are good for our economy if leaders from across the political spectrum get re-engaged in the debate. It is time for conservatives to compete with liberals to devise the best, most cost-effective climate solutions. Solving this challenge will require all of us.

Mr. Krupp is president of the Environmental Defense Fund and co-author of “Earth: The Sequel” (W.W. Norton, 2008).