Global Warming Is Not a Threat But the Environmentalist Response to It Is (Enlarged Version)

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This is a more complete version of an article with the same title that previously appeared on this web site.

Global Warming Does Not Imply a Carbon Cap

Early this winter, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the summary of its latest report on global warming. It’s most trumpeted finding was 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 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.

(Of course, there are projections of unlikely but nevertheless possible extreme global warming in the face of which conditions would be intolerable. However, as I explain below, 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….)

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 after the expiration of a reasonable grace period. That would spur relocation to safer areas in advance of much of any future flooding.

What Depends on Industrial Civilization and Man-Made Power

As the result of industrial civilization, not only do billions more people survive, but in the advanced countries they do so on a level far exceeding that of kings and emperors in all previous ages — on a level that just a few generations ago would have been regarded as possible only in a world of science fiction. With the turn of a key, the push of a pedal, and the touch of a steering wheel, they drive along highways in wondrous machines at seventy miles an hour. With the flick of a switch, they light a room in the middle of darkness. With the touch of a button, they watch events taking place ten thousand miles away. With the touch of a few other buttons, they talk to other people across town or across the world. They even fly through the air at six hundred miles per hour, forty thousand feet up, watching movies and sipping martinis in air-conditioned comfort as they do so. In the United States, most people can have all this, and spacious homes or apartments, carpeted and fully furnished, with indoor plumbing, central heating, air conditioning, refrigerators, freezers, and gas or electric stoves, and also personal libraries of hundreds of books, compact disks, and DVDs; they can have all this, as well as long life and good health — as the result of working forty hours a week.

The achievement of this marvelous state of affairs has been made possible by the use of ever improved machinery and equipment, which has been the focal point of scientific and technological progress. The use of this ever improved machinery and equipment is what has enabled human beings to accomplish ever greater results with the application of less and less muscular exertion.

Now inseparably connected with the use of ever improved machinery and equipment has been the increasing use of man-made power, which is the distinguishing characteristic of industrial civilization and of the Industrial Revolution, which marked its beginning. To the relatively feeble muscles of draft animals and the still more feeble muscles of human beings, and to the relatively small amounts of useable power available from nature in the form of wind and falling water, industrial civilization has added man-made power. It did so first in the form of steam generated from the combustion of coal, and later in the form of internal combustion based on petroleum, and electric power based on the burning of any fossil fuel or on atomic energy.

This man-made power, and the energy released by its use, is an equally essential basis of all of the economic improvements achieved over the last two hundred years. It is what enables us to use the improved machines and equipment and is indispensable to our ability to produce the improved machines and equipment in the first place. Its application is what enables us human beings to accomplish with our arms and hands, in merely pushing the buttons and pulling the levers of machines, the amazing productive results we do accomplish. To the feeble powers of our arms and hands is added the enormously greater power released by energy in the form of steam, internal combustion, electricity, or radiation. In this way, energy use, the productivity of labor, and the standard of living are inseparably connected, with the two last entirely dependent on the first.

Thus, it is not surprising, for example, that the United States enjoys the world’s highest standard of living. This is a direct result of the fact that the United States has the world’s highest energy consumption per capita. The United States, more than any other country, is the country where intelligent human beings have arranged for motor-driven machinery to accomplish results for them. All further substantial increases in the productivity of labor and standard of living, both here in the United States and across the world, will be equally dependent on man-made power and the growing use of energy it makes possible. Our ability to accomplish more and more with the same limited muscular powers of our limbs will depend entirely on our ability to augment them further and further with the aid of still more such energy.*

A Free-Market Response to Global Warming

Even if global warming is a fact, the free citizens of an industrial civilization will have no great difficulty in coping with it — that is, of course, if their ability to use energy and to produce is not crippled by the environmental movement and by government controls otherwise inspired. The seeming difficulties of coping with global warming, or any other large-scale change, arise only when the problem is viewed from the perspective of government central planners.

It would be too great a problem for government bureaucrats to handle (as is the production even of an adequate supply of wheat or nails, as the experience of the whole socialist world has so eloquently shown). But it would certainly not be too great a problem for tens and hundreds of millions of free, thinking individuals living under capitalism to solve. It would be solved by means of each individual being free to decide how best to cope with the particular aspects of global warming that affected him.

Individuals would decide, on the basis of profit-and loss calculations, what changes they needed to make in their businesses and in their personal lives, in order best to adjust to the situation. They would decide where it was now relatively more desirable to own land, locate farms and businesses, and live and work, and where it was relatively less desirable, and what new comparative advantages each location had for the production of which goods. Factories, stores, and houses all need replacement sooner or later. In the face of a change in the relative desirability of different locations, the pattern of replacement would be different. Perhaps some replacements would have to be made sooner than otherwise. To be sure, some land values would fall and others would rise. Whatever happened individuals would respond in a way that minimized their losses and maximized their possible gains. The essential thing they would require is the freedom to serve their self-interests by buying land and moving their businesses to the areas rendered relatively more attractive, and the freedom to seek employment and buy or rent housing in those areas.

Given this freedom, the totality of the problem would be overcome. This is because, under capitalism, the actions of the individuals, and the thinking and planning behind those actions, are coordinated and harmonized by the price system (as many former central planners of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have come to learn). As a result, the problem would be solved in exactly the same way that tens and hundreds of millions of free individuals have solved greater problems than global warming, such as redesigning the economic system to deal with the replacement of the horse by the automobile, the settlement of the American West, and the release of the far greater part of the labor of the economic system from agriculture to industry.**

Emissions Caps Mean Impoverishment

The environmental movement does not value industrial civilization. It fears and hates it. 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 emissions caps 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 caps 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. According to an Associated Press report of February 5, 2007, "Forty-Five nations joined France in calling for a new environmental body to slow global warming and protect the planet, a body that potentially could have policing powers to punish violators."

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.

An Answer to the Hellfire-and-Brimstone Version of Global Warming

In previous centuries it was common for Religion to threaten those whose way of life was not to its satisfaction, with the prospect of hellfire and brimstone in the afterlife. Substitute for the afterlife, life on earth in centuries to come, and it is possible to see that environmentalism and the rest of the left are now doing essentially the same thing. They hate the American way of life because of its comfort and luxury. And to frighten people into abandoning it, they are threatening them with a global-warming version of hellfire and brimstone.

This is not yet so open and explicit as to be obvious to everyone. Nevertheless, it is clearly present. It is hinted at in allusions to the possibility of temperature increases beyond the UN report’s projected range of 3.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. For example, according to The New York Times, "the report says there is a more than a 1-in-10 chance of much greater warming, a risk that many experts say is far too high to ignore."

Environmentalist threats of hellfire and brimstone can be expected to become more blatant and shrill if the movement’s present efforts to frighten the people of the United States into supporting its program appear to be insufficient. Hellfire and brimstone is the environmentalists’ ultimate threat.

Thus, let us assume that it were true that global warming might proceed to such an extent as to cause temperature and/or sea-level increases so great as to be simply intolerable or, indeed, literally to roast and boil the earth. Even so, it would still not follow that industrial civilization should be abandoned or in any way compromised. In that case, all that would be necessary is to seek out a different means of deliberately cooling the earth.

It should be realized that the environmentalists’ policy of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is itself a policy of cooling the earth. But it is surely among the most stupid and self-destructive such policies as it is possible to imagine. What it claims is 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 hurricanes and floods than if we retain and enlarge that energy base. It claims 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. It claims 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. This is the meaning of the claim that retaining this capacity will bring highly destructive global warming, while destroying it will avoid such global warming.***

There are rational ways of cooling the earth if that is what should actually be necessary, ways that would take advantage of the vast energy base of the modern world and of the still greater energy base that can be present in the future if it is not aborted by the kind of policies urged by the environmentalists….

Once people begin to put their minds to the problem, it is possible that a variety of effective and relatively low-cost solutions for global warming will be found. The two essential parameters of such a solution would be the recognition of the existence of possibly excessive global warming, on the one side, and unswerving loyalty to the value of the American standard of living and the American way of life, on the other. That is, more fundamentally, unswerving loyalty to the values of individual freedom, continuing economic progress, and the maintenance and further development of industrial civilization and its foundation of man-made power.

Global warming is not a threat. But environmentalism’s response to it is.

It claims to want to act in the name of avoiding the risk of alleged dreadful dangers lying decades and centuries in the future. But its means of avoiding those alleged dangers is to rush ahead today to cripple industrial civilization by means of crippling its essential foundation of man-made power. In so doing, it gives no consideration whatever to the risks of this. Nor does it give any consideration to any possible alternatives to this policy. It contents itself with offering to the public what is virtually merely the hope and prayer of the timely discovery of radically new alternative technologies to replace the ones it seeks to destroy. Such pie in the sky is a nothing but a lie, intended to prevent people from recognizing the plunge in their standard of living that will result if the environmentalists’ program is enacted.

If the economic progress of the last two hundred years or more is to continue, if its existing benefits are to be maintained, 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.

Notes

*The last five paragraphs, with slight adaptation, are an excerpt from pp. 77 and 78 of my book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics.

**The last four paragraphs, with slight adaptation, are an excerpt from pp. 88 and 89 of Capitalism.

*** The examples in this paragraph are adapted from p. 88 of Capitalism.

George Reisman [send him mail] is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics, and is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. Visit his website.

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