The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Fatalistic Climate Rhetoric

Carbon Pollution

A Washington Post columnist claimed that there is “no solution” to global warming in an op-ed that itself included -- and buried -- a possible solution to mitigate climate change. The damage done by advancing the defeatist claim that nothing can be done about climate change may make it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This year has brought one landmark climate report after another, each stating with more certainty than ever that the cost of inaction against climate change will be far greater than the cost of mitigating catastrophe. The National Climate Assessment found that unchecked global warming will affect every region of the country and cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars. The report also found that it's not too late to implement greenhouse gas reduction policies to avoid this scenario. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the findings that climate change is having “sweeping effects” on every continent, and made the case for “immediate mitigation” in a subsequent report, providing hundreds of different pathways for countries to take in order to avoid the worst effects. The American Association for the Advancement of Science published an explainer on the current state of climate science, stating that “The sooner we act [on climate change], the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do.”

Yet in a May 12 op-ed, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson brazenly declared that “we have no solution” to climate disruption. He suggested for every report on global warming to come with a “disclaimer” that “we now lack the technologies to stop it,” despite the fact that the reports he detailed in his op-ed actually found that these resources already exist.

The “reality” Samuelson provides, that global emissions are currently projected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2040, mostly from fossil fuels, should warrant an even stronger case for action. The longer the world waits to take action on climate change, the costlier it will be -- up to $1.9 trillion in the U.S. alone, according to an analysis by Tufts University. In other words, Samuelson's “solution” -- to do nothing -- would end up costing the economy more in the long-run.

Just because one U.S. policy may not be sufficient to negate global climate change does not make an action “futile.” Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist and writer for The Guardian and Skeptical Science, analogized Samuelson's argument to “saying that somebody who's obese shouldn't stop eating deep fried Twinkies, because by itself that's not sufficient to lose 100 pounds” in an email to Media Matters. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman has also spoken out against this logic in the New York Times:

What about the argument that unilateral U.S. action won't work, because China is the real problem? It's true that we're no longer No. 1 in greenhouse gases -- but we're still a strong No. 2. Furthermore, U.S. action on climate is a necessary first step toward a broader international agreement, which will surely include sanctions on countries that don't participate.

Despite his fatalistic rhetoric (for which he has previously been criticized), Samuelson does offer a potential solution at the end of his column, one he has advocated in the past: a carbon tax:

The most obvious idea is a carbon tax to help finance government and stimulate energy-saving technologies and new forms of non-carbon energy. If these technologies went global, the gap between rich and poor countries would narrow.

So why is Samuelson claiming that a “central truth for public policy” is that “we have no solution?” Solutions exist, as he himself admitted later in the column. But the longer they are delayed, the worse the problem will become, especially if global warming worsens past a potential tipping point. Providing solutions to global warming in the media is essential for closing the "science-action gap" and creating change. Without knowing the solutions, the Washington Post's readers are more likely to reject the threat of climate disruption. Framing climate change as a solution-less problem may create a scenario where that's true.

Photo at top via Flickr user Takver with a Creative Commons license.