Climate Change – Reality or Political Opportunism?

by Sydney Williams Scandals in Washington have deservedly moved most […]

Iceberg, Petermann Island, Antarcticaby Sydney Williams

Scandals in Washington have deservedly moved most other news items off the front pages, but an article in the May 13th issue of the New York Times caught my eye. The title was “A Change in Temperature,” by Justin Gillis. The article dealt with the question of what will happen to the earth’s temperature should carbon dioxide continued to be pumped into the atmosphere. Recent studies suggest, according to the article – less than previously thought.

Every living organism has some impact on the environment, for all living things are in some way symbiotic. Plants are able to convert sunlight and water into oxygen and carbohydrates, through a process called photosynthesis. That oxygen is then emitted, allowing animals to breathe and to break carbohydrates into carbon dioxide, which is then exhaled in a process called respiration. The process is circular. We cannot survive without vegetation, just as trees and plants cannot survive without us. Nevertheless, there is no question that man, because of his intelligence and desire to improve his living conditions, has had a significant effect on his environment.

But science advances. Included in improved living conditions are declines in health hazards. We can measure the amount of green gasses emitted, but no one can be sure as to what that impact has been. Anyone who has been to Beijing can not help but notice the heaviness of the atmosphere, just as anyone would have seen it in Pittsburgh fifty years ago. The industrial revolution began almost two hundred years ago, yet environmental concerns are reasonably recent. We cannot forget that they are the manifestations of a wealthy society. When my wife was growing up in New York City, in the 1940s, many, if not most apartments were heated by coal. As I have noted before, the Connecticut River, at whose mouth we live, was far dirtier 150 years ago than it is today.  Affluence brings with it an innate desire to live in more pleasant surroundings. That has always been true and always will be.

What no one can tell for certain is whether the effects of man have a decided influence on the natural forces that have changed our planet in dramatic fashion over the millions of years of its existence. Over several billion years, the earth has warmed and cooled multiple times. Theories exist but no one is certain as to the causes. Evidence suggests that the first ice age appeared two billion years ago, two hundred million years before the first dinosaurs appeared. The last ice age – the one that covered New England and formed Long Island Sound – occurred about 22,000 years ago. During the almost two hundred million years that encompassed the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods there were no icecaps. The point is that the cooling and warming of the earth will persist regardless of man, as has always been true. At some point those forces will very likely destroy man. We can temporarily save endangered species, but we cannot forever. Man may have aggravated the situation (in fact, I am sure he has), but there is no way that we can achieve a status quo. Much as we may wish otherwise, nothing will stay as it is. In nature, ceteris can never be paribus.

Nevertheless, “climate change” has become a rallying cry for many on the Left. It is not that they don’t have a point. The problem is that they lose their argument in an imperious effluence of exaggeration. Mr. Obama saw his nomination in 2008 as “the moment when the rise in the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” During his second inaugural, he spoke of the urgent threat of climate change – the “devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” Bjorn Lomborg, the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center in Washington and the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” responded to Mr. Obama’s speech in the January 23rd issue of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Lomborg addressed what he called Mr. Obama’s “three horsemen of the climate apocalypse.” He noted that globally wildfires have decreased 15% since 1950; that there has been little change in the number and severity of droughts over the past sixty years, and that hurricane activity is at the lowest level since the 1970s. Mr. Lomborg does not advocate ignoring climate change, but he does feel that hyperbole detracts from the argument.

As Bret Stephens noted in today’s Wall Street Journal, China’s “Green Leap Forward” proved a bust, despite what he calls the “heady optimism” of Chinese leaders and boosts from Leftist Western columnists like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Mr. Friedman wrote in January 2010: “The Beijing leadership understands that the E.T. – Energy Technology – revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.” Now, the worst air pollution in Beijing’s history and 80% of the East China Sea lost to fishing are marked reminders that, as Mr. Stephens wrote, “Statism always wrecks the environment.”

Bjorn Lomborg pointed out that the gain from a reduction in carbon dioxides must be offset against the costs of doing so. He wrote, “The cost of climate policies just for the European Union – intended to reduce emissions by 2020 to 20% below 1990 levels – are estimated at $250 billion annually. And the benefits, when using a standard climate model, will reduce temperatures only by an immeasurable one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century.” That’s a lot of money for a very small gain, something only a very rich society would dare contemplate – not  a sensible decision for a near bankrupt Western Europe.

Since a focus on the environment is a luxury permitted wealthier countries, it is difficult to arrive at a global response. Who, for example, wants to deny emerging nations the opportunity for better lives through the use of cheaper fossil fuels? In the United States, with abundant natural gas and coal, combined with new technologies that allow them to be burned far cleaner than in the past, should we cause the poorer among us to pay an ever-increasing percent of their income for energy? Would it not make more sense for government, instead of subsidizing companies like Solyndra and Fisker Automotive to take that money and ramp up research and development in green energies? The former breeds cronyism, which has infested our corporate/government world, while the latter would support innovation, which ultimately would lead to what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction – the natural evolution of industrial innovation. Bjorn Lomborg ended his op-ed: “When innovation eventually makes green energy cheaper, everyone will implement it, including the Chinese.”

Martin Wolf is a highly respected and serious writer whose column appears regularly in the Financial Times. A week ago he penned a piece entitled “Why the world faces climate chaos.” His op-ed was prompted by a recent report that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was reported to have passed 400 parts per million for the first time in 4.5 million years. There was, of course, no mention of how the scientists knew that it had been more than 4 million years, or how they were able to determine with precision the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere during that distant past. While no one knows for certain why the earth has warmed and cooled over millions of years (including the last 4.5 million years), Mr. Wolf was pretty adamant that he had discovered the reasons – China’s coal-fired electricity generation; dunderheads (my word, not his) who oppose government intervention into otherwise free markets; cretins who care not about future generations, and those that deny the “relevance of the science.” Mr. Wolf’s arguments are typical of those who seem to believe that it is man alone who is responsible for changing weather patterns – men and women who appear to believe that, properly governed, we can achieve some level of status quo for an earth that will remain tomorrow as it is today.

There are deniers on both sides of the climate argument. There are, assuredly, those who deny man has had any effect on his environment, though I have yet to meet such a person. But there are also those who deny that the earth is in constant flux, with or without man. The truth is that it is all of our interests to control our pollutants, while not relegating those in third world countries to a life in poverty. But we must also be prepared for significant changes in temperature that have nothing to do with the over-sized SUV hogging the road in front of me.

This debate over blame for climate change avoids a far more important question: What will happen when factors beyond our control cause temperatures to either rise or fall by significant amounts? The politicization of climate change has given birth to the arrogance that man bears responsibility for the change we are experiencing. Yet, we were not around to cause the ice ages that buried much of the world, or the warming that gave life to dinosaurs.

Climate change is real and it is part of nature. While there is no question man has played a role, fears about it have been heightened by political opportunism. Everyone knows that a cleaner environment is both healthier and more pleasant. It is something toward which societies naturally strive as they become richer. But exaggerating the consequences of what is happening serves nobody, other than those like Al Gore and Michael Moore who have become rich off of inciting fears in gullible people. Such tactics deflect from the far more important question of trying to understand how the world will survive when it inevitably does become much warmer or much colder. One of those spells will likely mark the end of our species; as such trends have spelt the end for other species. Dinosaurs existed for about 180 million years, from the Triassic period, 245 million years ago, through the Cretaceous Period, a time that ended 66 million years ago. Estimates are that man has been around less than a million years, and for only about 100,000 years in any sort of recognizable form. At some point man will disappear, but I doubt that the cause will be the next coal plant in China.

 “The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams


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

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