Oren Cass on “Overheated” Climate Change Coverage

Oren Cass addressed Buckley Fellows in a lecture on Monday, April 23rd to discuss his work on overdramatized analyses of climate change. A fellow spoke with him before the talk, and his thoughts are printed below. 

Oren Cass is a Senior Fellow with the Manhattan Institute, where his focus includes energy, the environment, and poverty, as well as corresponding policy issues. He previously served as domestic policy director for the Romney campaign from 2011-2012. He often briefs Congress on his conservative policy approaches for issues such as environmental regulation, trade, poverty, and climate change, and his work has been widely published among prominent media outlets. He received a B.A. in Political Economy from Williams College and a J.D. from Harvard University. 

By: Matthew Fantozzi

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Oren Cass to ask him some questions about his views on climate change.  Prior to my interview with Mr. Cass and his lecture that followed, I would have said that I had a good idea of what climate change was and how it would affect the globe, and I definitely would have said it was a serious issue we need to address as quickly and forcefully as possible.  With that said, I was excited to learn more about Mr. Cass’ views and to hear about how he arrived at his conclusions.

Mr. Cass’ general view on climate change can be summarized as the following: it is happening and humans are causing it, but it is not as serious or urgent an issue as most people believe.  Mr. Cass’ position is that the slight warming of the globe over a long period of time will be something humans can easily deal with, and he believes that the issue has been blown drastically out of proportion.

For my first question, I asked him why he thinks the issue has been so blown out of proportion and why the idea of global warming as an existential threat has caught on so thoroughly. Mr. Cass thinks the main problem is that people often forget how adaptive humans are, and how fast technology changes. When looking at the issue with the mindset that our society will not change as the climate does, the projected effects can indeed look quite scary.  The key, he says, is to trust humans and the technology we will discover to effectively combat climate change.  He believes this is very plausible given that climate change is a very slow-moving problem, giving us plenty of time to learn about and deal with it.  As for the reason it is viewed as such an immediate, severe threat, Cass believes it is simply marketable.  Articles about the disasters climate change will bring get a lot of clicks on the internet, so media outlets are encouraged to run more of them and the problem snowballs from there.  Articles that talk about climate change as nothing more than an interesting problem we should begin learning about now to effectively combat in the future do not tend to be as popular.  He spoke about this from experience, being someone who has himself written many articles arguing for this more reasonable approach.

My next question asked how we should deal with this type of long-term, potentially major issue, and which long-term issues Cass finds more worrisome, given that climate change does not fall into this category. He breaks down the process of evaluating and addressing major issues into two main components.  First, we as a society must learn as much as possible about the potential issue and what effects it may have in the future. After this is done, we must work to create a society that is resilient to the effects we foresee, as opposed to trying to eliminate the causes of those effects. With specific respect to climate change, for example, we should be looking to create a society that can, in the future, accept and manage slightly hotter temperatures and a slight rise in sea level.  As for the second part of the question, he told me that he believes any risk or problem that moves quickly is significantly more worrying than climate change. Perhaps something like nuclear war or a pandemic that could cause significant damage over the course of weeks or months would pose a greater immediate threat.  One of the upsides of climate change, he says, is that it moves incredibly slowly, giving us time to prepare and adjust.

My last question for Mr. Cass asked, even if the effects of climate change will not be that drastic, whether there is harm in everyone beginning to do their part now to reduce it.  His main problem with this is that he believes everyone making their own small contributions has no measurable effect. According to Cass, the only way to make a difference, even domestically, would be with drastic government policies that would significantly alter daily life.  Such policies could come in the form of sweeping restrictions on cars and air travel.  More than that, he says, it is important to understand that climate change is not a domestic problem, but a global one. This century, between 70 and 80 percent of emissions are projected to come from the developing world. That is where we would have to focus efforts in order to make a meaningful impact on climate change, and that does not seem fair to him.  It is unreasonable to prevent leaders from developing their countries and improving the lives of their citizens because of an ambiguous problem we might have to deal with in the future.

There is an established narrative about climate change and its seriousness on campus, and it turned out I knew very little beyond that coming into this interview. According to Cass, there is ample room for criticism of this account. Climate change is definitely a problem and an interesting one, but it is important to not simply accept the mainstream view on this subject without critical thinking.  It is important to listen to people like Orren Cass because it is impossible to address any problem completely without a full understanding of the issue, including the views of experts on all sides of it.

Matthew Fantozzi is a sophomore in Pierson College.