Global Warming Is Not a Threat But the Environmentalist Response to It Is
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released the summary of its latest, forthcoming report on global warming. It's most trumpeted finding is that the existence of global warming is now "unequivocal."
Although such anecdotal evidence as January's snowfall in Tucson, Arizona and freezing weather in Southern California and February's more than 100-inch snowfall in upstate New York might suggest otherwise, global warming may indeed be a fact. It may also be a fact that it is a by-product of industrial civilization (despite, according to The New York Times of November 7, 2006, two ice ages having apparently occurred in the face of carbon levels in the atmosphere 16 times greater than that of today, millions of years before mankind's appearance on earth).
If global warming and mankind's responsibility for it really are facts, does anything automatically follow from them? Does it follow that there is a need to limit and/or reduce carbon emissions and the use of the fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—that gives rise to the emissions? The need for such limitation and/or rollback is the usual assumption.
Nevertheless, the truth is that nothing whatever follows from these facts. Before any implication for action can be present, additional information is required.
One essential piece of information is the comparative valuation attached to retaining industrial civilization versus avoiding global warming. If one values the benefits provided by industrial civilization above the avoidance of the losses alleged to result from global warming, it follows that nothing should be done to stop global warming that destroys or undermines industrial civilization. That is, it follows that global warming should simply be accepted as a byproduct of economic progress and that life should go on as normal in the face of it.
Modern, industrial civilization and its further development are values that we dare not sacrifice if we value our material well-being, our health, and our very lives. It is what has enabled billions more people to survive and to live longer and better. Here in the United States it has enabled the average person to live at a level far surpassing that of kings and emperors of a few generations ago.
The foundation of this civilization has been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, the use of fossil fuels.
Of course, there are projections of unlikely but nevertheless possible extreme global warming in the face of which conditions would be intolerable. To deal with such a possibility, it is necessary merely to find a different method of cooling the earth than that of curtailing the use of fossil fuels. Such methods are already at hand, as I will explain in an article that will appear shortly.
In fact, if it comes, global warming, in the projected likely range, will bring major benefits to much of the world. Central Canada and large portions of Siberia will become similar in climate to New England today. So too, perhaps, will portions of Greenland. The disappearance of Arctic ice in summer time will shorten important shipping routes by thousands of miles. Growing seasons in the North Temperate Zone will be longer. Plant life in general will flourish because of the presence of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Strangely, these facts are rarely mentioned. Instead, attention is devoted almost exclusively to the negatives associated with global warming, above all to the prospect of rising sea levels, which the report projects to be between 7 and 23 inches by the year 2100, a range, incidentally, that by itself does not entail major coastal flooding. (There are, however, projections of a rise in sea levels of 20 feet or more over the course of the remainder of the present millennium.)
Yes, rising sea levels may cause some islands and coastal areas to become submerged under water and require that large numbers of people settle in other areas. Surely, however, the course of a century, let alone a millennium, should provide ample opportunity for this to occur without any necessary loss of life.
Indeed, a very useful project for the UN's panel to undertake in preparation for its next report would be a plan by which the portion of the world not threatened with rising sea levels would accept the people who are so threatened. In other words, instead of responding to global warming with government controls, in the form of limitations on the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, an alternative response would be devised that would be a solution in terms of greater freedom of migration.
In addition, the process of adaptation here in the United States would be helped by making all areas determined to be likely victims of coastal flooding in the years ahead ineligible for any form of governmental aid, insurance, or disaster relief that is not already in force. Existing government guarantees should be phased out after a reasonable grace period. Such measures would spur relocation to safer areas in advance of any future flooding.
Emissions Caps Mean Impoverishment
The environmental movement does not value industrial civilization. It fears and hates it. Indeed, it does not value human life, which it regards merely as one of earth's "biota," of no greater value than any other life form, such as spotted owls or snail darters. To it, the loss of industrial civilization is of no great consequence. It is a boon.
But to everyone else, it would be an immeasurable catastrophe: the end of further economic progress and the onset of economic retrogression, with no necessary stopping point. Today's already widespread economic stagnation is the faintest harbinger of the conditions that would follow.
A regime of limitations on the emission of greenhouse gases means that all technological advances requiring an increase in the total consumption of man-made power would be impossible to implement. At the same time, any increase in population would mean a reduction in the amount of man-made power available per capita. (Greater production of atomic power, which produces no emissions of any kind, would be an exception. But it is opposed by the environmentalists even more fiercely than is additional power derived from fossil fuels.)
To gauge the consequences, simply imagine such limits having been imposed a generation or two ago. If that had happened, where would the power have come from to produce and operate all of the new and additional products we take for granted that have appeared over these years? Products such as color television sets and commercial jets, computers and cell phones, CDs and DVDs, lasers and MRIs, satellites and space ships? Indeed, the increase in population that has taken place over this period would have sharply reduced the standard of living, because the latter would have been forced to rest on the foundation of the much lower per capita man-made power of an earlier generation.
Now add to this the effects of successive reductions in the production of man-made power compelled by the imposition of progressively lower ceilings on greenhouse-gas emissions, ceilings as low as 75 or even 40 percent of today's levels. (These ceilings have been advocated by Britain's Stern Report and by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel, respectively.) Inasmuch as these ceilings would be global ceilings, any increase in greenhouse-gas emissions taking place in countries such as China and India would be possible only at the expense of even further reductions in the United States, whose energy consumption is the envy of the world.
All of the rising clamor for energy caps is an invitation to the American people to put themselves in chains. It is an attempt to lure them along a path thousands of times more deadly than any military misadventure, and one from which escape might be impossible.
Already, led by French President Jacques Chirac, forces are gathering to make non-compliance with emissions caps an international crime. Given such developments, it is absolutely vital that the United States never enter into any international treaty in which it agrees to caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.
If the economic progress of the last two hundred years or more is to continue, if its existing benefits are to be maintained and enlarged, the people of the United States, and hopefully of the rest of the world as well, must turn their backs on environmentalism. They must recognize it for the profoundly destructive, misanthropic philosophy that it is. They must solve any possible problem of global warming on the foundation of industrial civilization, not on a foundation of its ruins.
This article is copyright © 2007, 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 www.capitalism.net is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.