Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Global Warming Bugaboo

The environmental movement maintains that science and technology cannot be relied upon to build a safe atomic power plant, to produce a pesticide that is safe, or even to bake a loaf of bread that is safe, if that loaf of bread contains chemical preservatives. When it comes to global warming, however, it turns out that there is one area in which the environmental movement displays the most breathtaking confidence in the reliability of science and technology, an area in which, until recently, no one—not even the staunchest supporters of science and technology—had ever thought to assert very much confidence at all. The one thing, the environmental movement holds, that science and technology can do so well that we are entitled to have unlimited confidence in them is forecast the weather—for the next one hundred years!

It is, after all, supposedly on the basis of a weather forecast that we are being asked to abandon the Industrial Revolution or, as it is euphemistically put, “to radically and profoundly change the way in which we live”—to our enormous material detriment. We are being asked to freeze and then progressively reduce global carbon dioxide emissions and, of course, to correspondingly reduce our consumption of the oil, coal, and natural gas that causes these emissions. Indeed, according to The Earth Policy Institute, “Scientists believe that an immediate 70–80 percent reduction in current carbon emissions is necessary to mitigate further climate change.” And we had all better be ready to throw away our refrigerators, wear plenty of sweaters in the winter, fan ourselves in the summer, and ride bicycles or walk to wherever we need to go.

Of course, any global limitation on carbon dioxide emissions whatever, let alone a 70-80 percent reduction, implies that the economic development and hence increased energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions of the vast presently backward regions of the world would have to be accomplished at the expense of the equivalently reduced energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions of the more advanced countries. Thus, as much as the two and a half billion or so people of China and India consumed more energy, the billion or so people of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan would have to consume equivalently less energy.

Very closely connected with the demand for reduced carbon-dioxide emissions and energy consumption is something else that might appear amazing. This concerns prudence and caution. No matter what the assurances of scientists and engineers, based in every detail on the best established laws of physics—about backup systems, fail-safe systems, containment buildings as strong as U-boat pens, defenses in depth, and so on—when it comes to atomic power, the environmental movement is unwilling to gamble on the unborn children of fifty generations hence being exposed to harmful radiation. But on the strength of a weather forecast, it is willing to wreck the economic system of the modern world—to literally throw away industrial civilization!

The meaning of this insanity is that industrial civilization is to be wrecked because this is what must be done to avoid bad weather. All right, very bad weather. The very bad weather of hurricanes like Katrina.

In a manner reminiscent of an old Hollywood movie in which some great white hunter might attempt to frighten a tribe of jungle savages in darkest Africa, the environmentalists tell a badly dumbed-down American public that Katrina and worse hurricanes to come are the result of global warming resulting from fossil fuel consumption. They tell us in effect, that if we destroy the energy base needed to produce and operate the construction equipment required to build strong, well-made, comfortable houses for hundreds of millions of people, we shall be safer from such hurricanes than if we retain and enlarge that energy base. They tell us that if we destroy our capacity to produce and operate refrigerators and air conditioners, we shall be better protected from hot weather than if we retain and enlarge that capacity. They tell us that if we destroy our capacity to produce and operate tractors and harvesters, to can and freeze food, to build and operate hospitals and produce medicines, we shall secure our food supply and our health better than if we retain and enlarge that capacity.

There is actually a remarkable new principle implied here, concerning how man can cope with his environment. Instead of our taking action upon nature, as we have always believed we must do, we shall henceforth control the forces of nature more to our advantage by means of our inaction. Indeed, if we do not act, no significant threatening forces of nature will arise! The threatening forces of nature are not the product of nature, but of us! Thus speaks the environmental movement.

More on this madness will follow.

This article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author’s web site is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. This article was adapted from p. 88 of the author’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996).

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