Opinion: Katy Tur, France’s riots and panic mode

NBC’s Katy Tur, responding to an article in the New Yorker about climate, looked into the camera and asked, “How pointless is my life? And how pointless are the decisions that I make on a day-to-day basis when we are not focused on climate change every day, when it’s not leading every one of our newscasts?”

It’s a safe bet that not only will climate change not lead all newscasts, it will not even lead Tur’s very often. And the reason is not any of those often proffered for failure to act in ways activists prefer. It won’t be that she is a climate change denier. It won’t be that she was bought off by the fossil fuel industry. And it won’t be that she doesn’t care.

It will not lead because her program is a business, and if she begins her newscast every day with the same story, people will tire of it pretty quickly and soon she’ll be out of a job.

Still, I don’t doubt Tur’s sincerity. Both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have reported an increase in what is being dubbed “climate anxiety.” Fear of catastrophe is apparently widespread. Kids return from school fearful that they won’t live to adulthood. The National Resources Defense Council offers tips on “banishing the Climate Change Blues.” Al Gore may have many fine traits, but his effort to sow panic about climate with “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) was a tremendous disservice to reasonable policy making and to the very cause he was promoting. It was not based on sound science, and when its wilder predictions proved false, some concluded that the whole issue was fraudulent.

Climate change is what social scientists call a “wicked problem.” Wicked problems are complicated, multi-faceted, and suffer from limited knowledge. They are not amenable to trial and error because there are too many different variables that could account for various outcomes.

Climate activists are a little weak on complexity. All that prevents humanity from solving the climate change problem, they say, is big business and Republicans.

Admittedly, Republicans who indulge the fantasy that global warming isn’t a problem are being, at best, irresponsible. But Democrats who suggest that we should simply enact measures like carbon taxes because it’s better to be safe than sorry ignore the fact that no policy is cost-free.

Look at France in the past week. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and many rioted, setting 240 fires and damaging the Arc de Triomphe. Why? Because President Emmanuel Macron proposed to increase the already high taxes on gasoline to combat climate change. It’s particularly hard on rural people who rely more on their cars.

People who are taxed to save the planet are inclined to ask hard questions, such as: Should I forego a new roof on my house when countries like China are responsible for the lion’s share of emissions? Last year, China’s carbon emissions increased by 4.7 percent and India’s by 6.3 percent. The European Union’s emissions dropped by 0.7 percent, not nearly enough to offset Asia’s growing economies.

The idea behind carbon taxes is that higher prices will incentivize the search for alternatives. But unless governments can devise methods to ensure that the poor and near poor are not made worse off — say by providing the taxes back in the form of credits — the burden will be rejected by voters.

Solutions to this wicked problem will likely be technological. Government has a role in funding basic research. Hysteria is not policy.

Writes for Creators Syndicate.