Global Warming: The Wrong Argument

When promoting clean energy, the primary argument for reform is usually global warming or climate change. Assuming global warming exists, this is a powerful argument. It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario than rising sea levels submerging vast swaths of the Earth’s landmass. It is also difficult for opponents to defeat a proposal that, if not adopted by our government, will result in massive loss of life.

This argument rests, as I stated before, on the global warming assumption. However, I am not arguing that global warming does not exist — that is irrelevant to my point. What is important is that the “clean energy” argument rests on the assumption that people accept global warming in the first place.

Unfortunately, many Americans do not accept it. An October “Energy Update” from Rasmussen Reports notes that only 60 percent of Americans believe that global warming is a serious problem. It is a significant number — indeed, a majority — but it also means that 40 percent of Americans dismiss global warming. So when policymakers, such as President Obama, reference climate change as the primary reason for adopting clean energy policy, he fails to appeal to 40 percent of Americans.

What then, can everyone agree on about clean energy? There are many arguments in favor of clean energy that are far more difficult to argue against than global warming. First, consider pollution. It is undeniable that spewing contaminants into the air harms human health. Anyone who has been in Los Angeles understands this well. The smog, benzene, and other products of combustion are poisonous. This is very believable, but the impact and reason for urgency of pollution pales in comparison to global climate change.

There are, however, other reasons that do have the same brutal imagery. Look at the risk for resource wars. As oil supplies dwindle, economic and security interests will dictate the need to secure oil resources. States have used, continue to use, and will use their military power to secure oil resources. Saddam Hussein attempted to expand his oil empire by invading Kuwait. China’s involvement in Sudan is almost certainly linked to the latter’s oil. According to the Energy Information Administration, Sudan has five billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which is enough to warrant China’s military involvement in the region.

It is not hard to imagine that the United States will intervene to protect its oil interests. The United States provides security to Saudi Arabia, intervened to stop Hussein from controlling Kuwaiti oil, and, by some estimates, might have used oil as a reason for invading Iraq in March 2003. Resource wars are a real risk and have direct costs both in dollars and lives.

I hope to see these problems come up more often than the global warming in the debate for clean energy. Clean energy is an important goal, but that goal could be undermined by the very reasons that purportedly support it. Proponents have to start using less debatable points, and focus on ones like pollution or resource wars. These have more direct implications for the United States than the controversial global warming argument.

Like the “death panel” phrase that some conservatives have used to discredit the Obama health care plan, the global warming argument is the scariest argument out there. Partly because it is so scary and dire, it is also less acceptable. People deny it. Deniers cannot be convinced. If supporters of clean energy want results, then now is the time to begin transforming deniers into supporters with arguments that are not based on global warming. For real change to happen, supporters must use arguments that have direct, tangible and undeniable effects on almost all Americans. Pollution, resource wars, or job creation fulfill these objectives. Global warming does not.

Charles B. Barr is a member of the Class of 2013.