Opinion | Energy & Environment

Who's right on climate change: Trump or Newsom?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Several days ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, standing on the burning, the smoking edge of a huge forest fire, stated defiantly, "This is climate change. The debate is over."

Maybe. Maybe not. No one is omniscient on this matter.

On Sept. 13, President Donald Trump met with the governor, who again boldly declared that California is getting hotter, staying hotter longer, and becoming drier. Agreeing with the governor was Wade Crowfoot, California's secretary of natural resources.

Trump responded, "It'll start getting cooler. You watch." He can't know this: he's not divine or omniscient. That's a hope.

Crowfoot responded, "I wish science agreed with you." He can wish, but he can't know the future either because, like politicians and scientists, he is neither divine nor omniscient.

Trump responded, "Well, I don't think science knows actually." He was the most accurate of the three speakers in the room.

It is a matter of what empirical evidence can say or prove about nature.

I recently read a statement by a scientist who said the earth is "750 million years old." Was the earth, say, cool a million or two million years ago, then hot and hotter for a few million years? I do not wish to be misunderstood: I am focusing on science, on empirical evidence, not on theology or religious arguments.

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century British philosopher, wrote one of the most moving passages I ever read as an English professor when he pointed out the futility of scientists' trying to understand how the world works fully. My point is about empirical evidence, about proof, not theology. I quote the passage from Sartor Resartus:

We speak of the Volume of Nature: and truly a Volume it is,--whose Author and Writer is God. To read it! Does thou, does man, so much as well know the Alphabet thereof? With its Words, Sentences, and grand descriptive Pages, poetical and philosophical, spread out through Solar Systems, and Thousands of Years, we shall not try thee. It is a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred-writing, of which even Prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line. As for your Institutes, and Academies of Science, they strive bravely; and, from amid the thick-crowded, inextricably intertwisted hieroglyphic writing, pick out by dexterous combination, some Letters in the vulgar Character, and from there put together this and the other economic Recipe, of high avail in Practice. That Nature is more than some boundless Volume of such Recipes, or huge, well-nigh inexhaustible Domestic-Cookery Book, of which the whole secret will in this manner one day evolve itself, the fewest dream.

I have seen the same point elsewhere, in a theological context: "Credo, quia impossibile est": "I believe because it is impossible." The human mind cannot empirically even begin to understand all there is to know about nature. That's why Trump was on the mark when he responded, "Well, I don't think science knows actually."

I take it the earth is hotter and drier than it was, say, 10 or 50 years ago. Science and empirical evidence can show this. But we can't know if that is a long- or short-term change. Ten years from now, say, it could be colder or hotter. 

Meanwhile, in California, something needs to be done, if possible, about the millions of dead trees and tinder-dried vegetation. Nothing can be done about the 12,000 bolts of dry lightning. For many, the only way to escape the heat, dryness, and smoke, if they are getting worse, is to move out of the state.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D., is a policy fellow at the Independent Institute. He was appointed by President Reagan to the United States Information Agency and later became chief of staff for Chief Justice Warren Burger.