Columns / Discourse / January 25, 2012

Voice of Reason: Cool heads for a hot planet

A few years ago, it seemed as if the American public had finally come around appreciating the threat posed by global climate change. Polls finally showed most Americans believed in it, Al Gore had just won the Nobel Prize and green was the new black, supposedly.

Unfortunately, that was before “too big to fail” had entered the public lexicon and shifted mainstream concern from whether or not Bangladesh was going to be underwater to whether their mortgage was.

It’s tempting to berate the public for their whiplash, but it is rather hard to see why someone who is worried about their unemployment benefits running out would concern himself or herself with their carbon footprint. Environmental concern has often become a bit of a luxury that too many Americans these days simply cannot afford.

Faced with the challenges of a stalled economy and widespread unemployment, the environmental movement chose to stick to their guns and keep preaching the gospel of carbon cuts, lifestyle change and sacrifice. One half expects some radical sect one of these days to start walking down the streets flagellating themselves in penance for their carbon emissions.

Any one of the world’s religions can tell you that you can preach morality all you like, but the selfish impulses of human nature remain. Yet our environmental ascetics believe they can accomplish a fundamental re-engineering of human nature. Many of them seem to think that they can honestly convince a critical mass to sacrifice their modern lifestyles for science they don’t understand, for generations yet unborn in places they can’t find on a map.

It’s time for a complete change. Continuing to act as if massive carbon cuts on a worldwide scale is really a realistic goal is dangerously naïve. The world is never going to cut the amount of carbon needed in time. Scientific American pointed out that the world economy would need a 70 percent cut in carbon emissions just to stabilize world temperatures, which are already on pace to rise above where they should be. Emissions have only been rising and are nowhere near leveling off, let alone dropping.

There is no mystical explanation as to why that is. Pardon the cliché, but it’s the economy, stupid. Bjorn Lombard has calculated that the cost of necessary emissions cuts would be some $40 trillion annually by the end of the century, or some 50 times the cost of the effects of global warming itself. With numbers like those it’s no wonder no one is rushing out to outlaw coal.

The only chance for a realistic solution is to realize that economics is not the enemy, but the savior of the environment. Environmentalists need to stomach their reactive distaste for the free market and set goals that actually have a chance of being embraced by the population at large instead of low-carbon fantasy worlds that won’t be ready until it’s too late by several decades.

For example, is the better strategy to cost the American economy trillions of dollars in carbon cuts to avoid another Katrina, or to invest a fraction of that shoring up dikes around our coastal cities? How about carbon cuts versus buying more mosquito netting? What would really do a better job of stopping malaria from spreading? People seem terrified of even asking these questions; as if merely talking about what to do if carbon cuts aren’t enough is the reason the cuts aren’t going to work.

Then there is the unspeakable alternative option: geoengineering. Man has certainly proven capable of warming the Earth, yet few environmentalists take seriously the idea that he can do just as good a job of cooling it down again. A number of economists do, however. To take just one of numerous practical proposals, Mikhail Budyko has estimated that to launch enough sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to mitigate all of the effects of man-made warming would cost just $250 million.

Even though it may be cold out now, global warming is still a serious threat. I can only hope that we don’t assume that just because environmental utopia is unachievable, we give up entirely.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.


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