Gregg Easterbrook’s global warming alarm — too little, too late

Gregg Easterbrook has long been a foot-dragger in the global warming debate. He’s positioned himself as an optimist and a pragmatist and a non-alarmist. In practice that has meant knocking the Kyoto Treaty and, as an ostensibly liberal or at least centrist global-warming skeptic, providing cover for anti-environmentalists — sort of like how Joe Lieberman’s support of the Iraq war has provided the Bush administration with a fig-leaf of bipartisanship.

So on one level we should applaud Easterbrook’s piece on yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page declaring that, yes, he is finally now persuaded that global warming really is a problem, that all the returns are finally in and the weight of scientific evidence now overwhelmingly points to human activities as a major factor in the climate change we’ve begun to witness. “Based on the data, I’m now switiching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert,” he wrote.

I’m glad Easterbrook has chosen to declare his change of heart so publicly. But, you know, one thing we expect from pundits is that they be just a little bit ahead of the curve. Easterbrook’s 11th-hour conversion may provide some useful fodder in the propaganda battle against right-wing ostriches. In my book, it also discredits his further pronouncements on this topic.

His early call on global warming — don’t worry yet, things will probably work out okay, there’s still hope it’s all just statistical noise — was dead wrong. The people he derided as alarmists were right. So pardon me for suggesting that it is now time for Easterbrook to hang up his hat as an expert on this subject. I don’t want to hear his latest recommendations against Kyoto or his endorsement of carbon-trading schemes as the only solution to the problem. There are other people I trust a lot more, because they made the right call on this issue when it was a lot harder to make.

Pundits make risky guesses all the time. Those that guess right over time gain credibility; those who guess wrong ought to lose it. To express this in terms the market-loving Easterbrook can understand, it’s the risk/reward mechanism as applied to information. For example: Saying “Google is important!” today, or any time over the last several years, doesn’t win you any points. Those of us who said it back in 1998 — when the conventional wisdom of the bubble-dazzled industry was that search engines didn’t matter anymore — perhaps earned a little extra credibility when the prediction proved correct. Observers who accurately predicted the likely outcome of the invasion of Iraq — like Thomas Powers — are going to get a fuller hearing from me than those who cheered the ludicrous “cakewalk” talk and pooh-poohed the difficulty of rebuilding the nation post-Saddam.

So, as we struggle to figure out how to deal with global warming, I will continue to ask, “Why should I listen to Gregg Easterbrook?”, and place my bets on the observers who put their careers on the line to sound an early alarm — people like Bill McKibben, and, yes, Al Gore.

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