On the issue of climate change, there’s one particular claim of its apologists that has always bothered me. And I don’t think I’m alone.  

It’s not the idea that we should take better care of the earth—I’m all for adopting a less utilitarian view toward it. It’s not the idea that taking better care of the earth may involve some major sacrifices and life changes—though I’d likely have issues with a national or global mandate. And it’s not the idea that the earth’s temperature may be warming, or cooling, or just “changing” (I can’t keep track of what’s currently considered orthodox).

It’s the claim that recent changes in the earth’s climate have been primarily caused by man, and that policy changes can reverse these changes. To me, it seems problematic to conclude this without defining a benchmark and without adequately taking into account dramatic climate change in past centuries.   

Apparently Philip Jenkins, professor of history at Baylor University, agrees with me.

In a thoughtful piece for The American Conservative, he explains that he doesn’t take issue with the scientific consensus “that the world’s temperature is in a serious upward trend,” and that it could have significant consequences for life on earth. And he’s in favor of developing new technology that depends more on renewable energy resources.

As a historian, however, he has a few issues “with defining the limits of our climate consensus, and how these issues are reported in popular media and political debate.”

For one, writes Jenkins, “[T]he correlation between emissions and temperatures is none too close. Rising temperatures do not correlate with any degree of neatness to overall levels of emissions.”

Also, Jenkins notes that assertions that modern climate change is “catastrophic and unprecedented” are amusing to historians:

“[Historians and archaeologists] are very well used to quite dramatic climate changes through history, notably the Medieval Warm Period and the succeeding Little Ice Age. That latter era, which prevailed from the 14th century through the 19th, is a well-studied and universally acknowledged fact, and its traumatic effects are often cited.”

And there seems to be a lack of precision when it comes to defining what constitutes a “normal” temperature for the earth. The 2015 Paris Conference said it hoped to restrict “the increase in global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to… limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”—and did not provide further clarification. But as Jenkins asks,

“[W]hat on earth is intended here? Which pre-industrial levels are we talking about? The levels of AD 900, of 1150, of 1350, of 1680, of 1740? All those eras were assuredly pre-industrial, but the levels were significantly different in each of those years.”

These all seem like reasonable points to raise, though it’s difficult to do so in today’s political “climate” without being immediately shouted down.

Again, I don’t wish to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change. Neither does Jenkins. But before moving forward with sweeping policies and implementing regulations that will be a significant tax (in both senses of the word) on businesses and individuals, I would simply ask: Shouldn’t we proceed with caution? Shouldn’t we make sure that we have satisfactory answers to the issues raised above? 

It seems like the scientific thing to do.