Climate and the Perfunctory Left

By Sydney M. Williams The caption under the lead photo in […]

By Sydney M. Williams

The caption under the lead photo in last Monday’s New York Times spoke volumes: “Worldwide rallies on Sunday, demanding a halt to climate change…” As if any person or group of people can halt the climate from changing! Were it so simple!

Despite words that will be uttered and proclamations that will be issued by those attending the UN Climate talks in Paris, they will have little lasting effect. There are myriad reasons: This is the 22nd conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, yet little, if anything, has been accomplished. Thousands of UN employees and tens of thousands of others in government have a vested interest in the perpetuation of these conferences, which incur huge costs. There are, for example, 40,000 people from 190 countries attending this conference. (President Obama had 500 in his retinue.) Bjorn Lomborg (author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”) recently noted in the Financial Times, that if one ran all the pledges through the UN climate model, one would find that by 2100 temperatures would be cut by just 0.05 degrees centigrade. On a cost/benefit analysis, does this make sense? China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, does not have to comply with standards until 2030. Developing nations see an opportunity for an enormous wealth transfer – in their favor. Despite allegations by those on the Left, man’s exact contribution to climate change is unknown. We do not even know if he is the principal cause. This would not be a treaty in the usual sense. Mr. Obama may unilaterally sign an agreement, but it could be nullified by his successor. He will not seek the advice and consent of the Senate. Apart from the $20 billion R&D fund announced by Bill Gates, the talks are heavy on talk and demands and light on action and innovation.

Yet, it has been innovation, a consequence of entrepreneurship and free-market capitalism, that has reduced poverty, cleansed water, increased food supplies, improved septic systems, enhanced trade and made the world a better, cleaner place. Over the past century and a half, fossil fuels have been the main ingredient allowing that to happen. And it will be innovation – not mandates – that will ultimately wean us from fossil fuels. The most needed invention today are batteries of small size that can store large amounts of energy for extended periods. We could then harness the energy from tides, currents and hurricanes. We should look forward, not backward. We should promote, not inhibit, advancement.

Keep in mind, the biggest driver in reductions to U.S. carbon dioxide emissions has not been solar or wind (or Kyoto or Copenhagen); it has been horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing which have opened up vast fields of natural gas. It was private, not public, investment. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of GDP in the United States is one third lower than it was in 1990.

If those who see man as the principal (if not the sole) cause of climate change were less self-righteous, an intelligent dialogue could be had. But they have become religious zealots on a single-focused mission. The New York Times is a willing co-conspirator. They tell of our coming doom…if we fail to drive a Prius, install solar panels, or populate our fields, bays and sounds with windmills. We are made to feel guilty, when in fact we should take pride in the advances cheap and abundant energy have brought to our lives. A couple of weeks ago the Times ran an article headlined: “600,000 Deaths Laid to Weather.” They were quoting from data prepared by the United Nations, which claims an increase in the frequency and impact of storms, an allegation itself without basis. It was only in the body of the article that the reader realized they were writing of deaths over two decades, or 30,000 a year. They failed to put those deaths in perspective: that each year more than fifty million people die. Last Wednesday, the lead article on the front page of the Times was of the Pacific-based Republic of the Marshall Islands, an equator-based nation of 72,000 people: “Rising Seas Are Claiming a Vulnerable Nation.” The capital city of Majuro is an atoll consisting of 64 small islands. The average elevation is ten feet above sea level. Of course they are at risk from rising seas and storms. The surge from Hurricane Sandy took sea levels fourteen feet above normal, according to the National Weather Service. Wikipedia lists sixteen significant islands and continents that have disappeared over the millennia. Would my purchase of a Tesla help?

When the Left focuses exclusively on man-caused reasons for climate change, they leave us vulnerable to changes from natural forces. They leave unaddressed the possibility of other, existential factors that could be far more dangerous. While they discuss the concept of “geo-engineering,” they ignore the fact that species adapt to changing conditions. Additionally, in their determination to shut down fossil-fueled power generation, they penalize developing countries, while raising the costs for Americans.

The Left employs a simple, syllogistic argument: Greenhouse gasses effect climate; since the Industrial Revolution, man has been emitting greenhouse gasses; therefore, industrialized man is the cause of climate change. But how does that argument explain changes in climate that preceded the industrial age? Scientists recognize the existence of ice ages and preternatural warm periods. We know that tectonic shifts in the earth’s crust and the eruption of volcanoes have affected the earth and its climate. Their arguments ignore theories such as the Milankovitch cycle that holds that inconstancy in temperatures are in part due to the dynamic nature of the planet’s elliptical orbit, the tilt of the axis and its changing direction.

A far better use of time and money for the UN would be to encourage the spread of democracy and free-market capitalism. Keep in mind, it was the industrial revolution that did more to bring the world out of poverty than any other single event. The English historian and economist, T.S. Ashton, wrote in 1948: “The industrial revolution meant the difference between grinding poverty that had characterized human history and the affluence of the modern industrial state.” Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Conservative Heart, pointed out that the greatest unsung achievement of the last forty-five years has been the reduction in poverty (described as those living on less than a dollar a day), from 27% in 1970 to 5% today. Much of that reduction came in Asia, a consequence of freedom, entrepreneurship and free market capitalism. Compare Eastern Europe today to twenty-five years ago. With wealth comes the desire to live as environmentally clean as possible. Government plays a crucial role in setting guidelines, but it has been competitive businesses practices, such as hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling, that have allowed the U.S. to reduce emissions without having been a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, or the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009.

I used the word perfunctory in the title of this essay, because it describes the careless and superficial (and supercilious) attitude of many of those who support the Left’s position in this critical debate. The caption quoted in the first paragraph is telling, in that it indicates ignorance. It suggests man alone is responsible for changes in the climate, and that if we just do what this elite group of bureaucrats tell us to do “the waters will recede and the planet will heal.” While Mr. Obama and the rest who have led this charge surely know better, the ignorance of their acolytes reflects the manner in which those like Mr. Obama have couched their arguments. It is chilling, for there is nothing riskier to a democracy than an ignorant citizenry.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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