Counterpoint: Puzzling Over Global Warming Alarmism
by Paul A. Cleveland
It puzzles me why so many people, often very well educated, have bought into global warming alarmism hook, line, and sinker. As an economist, I have been skeptical of such doom – saying throughout my career and I see nothing in the current campaign to political action that convinces me that this one is any different than past efforts. When I was an undergraduate student in the 1970s, the alarmists were concerned about global cooling and the depletion of natural resources. However, such alarmism was totally unwarranted. My economics professors then ridiculed such alarmism as based in ignorance and fear and the current global warming issue seems exactly the same.
Gushee’s case is built upon two basic premises. First, he asserts that the warming trend that we are currently observing is causing some “freaky” weather. Put bluntly, warmer weather necessarily means a more hostile environment. Second, he assumes that scientists, using “highly sophisticated tools” and the “peer review” process, have reached an uncontested conclusion that human activities are the cause of global warming. On this basis, Dr. Gushee concludes that people ought to change their behavior and that Christians should jump on the alarmist’s train and push for political action as a matter of stewardship.
However, I have my doubts as to whether either one of these premises is actually true. In his first premise it is assumed that “freaky” weather is the result of human induced global warming. Professor Gushee did not define “freaky” weather, but he assumes that such weather has been proven to be caused by global warming. Perhaps he is referring to the active hurricane season we had two summers ago in which numerous hurricanes made land fall in the U.S.
Shortly after Katrina hit the gulf coast, the alarmists were quick to assert that it was an offshoot of warming. Unfortunately for the warming alarmists, the scientists in the field see no connection whatsoever.
William Gray, our nation’s leading expert in the field, dismissed the connection out of hand. When asked why he thought so many other scientists were so quick to try to make the link, he said that he thought it was largely driven by the desire to attract research funding which has been monopolized by the government and that officials who control the funds have a strong desire to promote the global warming hypothesis. Thus, scrambling for research dollars appeared to be the main reason. Gray is certainly not alone in his assessment of the situation. Another climatologist, George Taylor at Oregon State University, put together a short article shortly after the idea was floated that global warming was the main cause for the intensity of Katrina and the active hurricane season we witnessed. In his article, Dr. Taylor presented the actual record of the number of land fall hurricanes each decade for the twentieth century which showed no demonstrable trend. In fact, the most active decade for the century was the 40s, the least active was the 70s, and the 90s was below average. While this decade may end up being more active, such information proves nothing.
Among the worries about the impact of “freaky” weather, Professor Gushee mentioned concerns about melting Artie ice, receding glaciers, crashing ice shelves, rising sea levels, and the spread of infectious diseases. But once again, not all scientists have signed onto the alarmists agenda and they are offering up some very interesting facts that cannot be accounted for by the doomsayers. One such skeptic is Dr. Richard Lindzen. He is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT and he has published more than 200 “peer reviewed” articles in scholarly journals. Following the release of Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, Professor Lindzen felt compelled to respond to the many half-truths and falsehoods in the film and to do so in a popular publication. In the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Lindzen explains some of the problems with the movie. He states that
To believe [Gore’s preferred global-warming template] requires that one ignore the truly inconvenient facts. To take the issue of rising sea levels, these include: that the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940; that icebergs have been known since time immemorial; that the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average. A likely result of all this is increased pressure pushing ice off the coastal perimeter of that country, which is depicted so ominously in Mr. Gore’s movie. . . .Alpine glaciers have been retreating since the early 19th century, and were advancing for several centuries before that. Since about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are now advancing. And, frankly, we don’t know why . . . [Finally,] malaria, claimed as a byproduct of warming, was once common in Michigan and Siberia and remains common in Siberia-mosquitoes don’t require tropical warmth.
It seems clear that the alarmists are jumping to conclusions that are unwarranted by the facts. This would not be the first time such an environmentalist agenda was foisted upon the public. In 1962, Rachael Carson published a book titled, Silent Spring. In it she warned the public that the use of DDT was responsible for reducing bird populations and that political action was necessary lest they vanish from the earth for good. Her book was popularly received and gained a consensus among people in the media, entertainment, some science circles, and government. As a result, the use of DDT was banned even though it had essentially wiped out malaria in North America and Europe, and was well on the way to doing so in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Since then, science has shown that the judicious use of DDT does not cause the problems attributed to it by Carson. Nevertheless, the ban remains and malaria continues to be a nearly worldwide health problem. Millions die each year, mainly children. Those that do survive are typically scarred for life. Much of this death and destruction could have been averted if we had not rushed to action on the basis of an emotional appeal with the barest of scientific understanding.
As an economist, I agree with Dr. Gushee about the need for evangelicals “to do a whole lot more thinking about economic theory and how it fits with biblical teaching.” In fact, I so wholeheartedly agree with him that I have spent my career doing so. As such, I wish Professor Gushee actually knew more about the subject than it appears that he does for it seems clear to me that he is ill-informed. In truth, my economic understanding is a large source of my skepticism about global warming alarmism.
The study of political economy is a central part of my research agenda and I have come to understand that the political world typically turns on the ability of certain groups to gain and maintain political privilege and control. A colleague of mine, Bruce Yandle who is a professor emeritus of economics at Clemson University, recently published a paper titled, “Bootleggers, Baptists, and Global Warming.” The title is taken from an earlier paper he wrote where he pointed out an interesting phenomenon in Southern politics. After Prohibition, numerous areas in the South remained dry. Periodically, referendums would emerge asking the local populations to vote for removing the restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Invariably, a political coalition made up of Baptists and bootleggers would form to campaign against the referendum. As the saying goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows, but the coalition is easily explained. The Baptists sought to defeat the change on ideological grounds while the bootleggers sought to defeat it on economic grounds.
In his current article, Professor Yandle applies the same idea to the current global warming issue. There are hard core deep ecologists who believe that people are destroying planet earth. They are religiously driven earth-worshipers. Central to their position is the notion that the earth has an intrinsic value. Thus, any time human beings develop anything it is seen as destructive of nature and evil. A casual perusal of their web sites will convince anyone that this is the case. They are anti-economic progress, anti-development, and anti technology. They are the “Baptists” and they have done a pretty good job of making converts in the public school system and at the academy.
The bootleggers in global warming alarmism are EPA regulators and other government officials, politicians, a collection of scientists, and a cadre of self-interested businessmen. If you worked for the EPA, the last thing you would want to do is to put yourself out of work. People living in the U.S. today enjoy a level of air and water quality that has been more or less unknown in human history as a result of our economic progress. As such, the need for regulators is diminishing and they are forever looking for new things to regulate to justify their existence. Therefore, what could possibly be better than a well organized effort to identify C02 a pollutant. After all, C02 is a naturally occurring gas that we exhale with every breath. If the EPA can classify it as a pollutant, its existence will be permanently mandated.
Politicians are also numbered among the bootleggers as they are forever interested in expanding their power and control and in attracting votes to get re-elected to office. Toward this end, putting together various political coalitions is typically the means to that end and the global warming issue provides an excellent opportunity for them to achieve it.
The global warming issue is also an excellent opportunity for some self-serving scientists to promote their careers. It is a fact that the federal government has essentially monopolized research funding of the sciences. Most research scientists work as professors at universities and are rewarded for attracting research funding. Since the government largely knows the result it wants before it funds any particular project, many of these scientists propose projects that aim to tell the story that the officials want them to tell. If they did not do so, they would increase the likelihood that their proposals would be rejected and thus increase the probability that they might lose their positions. Unfortunately, this kind of monopolization is not going to lead to the truth, but to the politically expedient.
Finally, there are various business enterprises that stand to gain financially from new government restrictions. The proposed regulations will invariably drive the prices of some resources artificially high and companies positioned to trade them will make large profits as a result. For this reason, they make large campaign contributions to ensure that policy decisions promote their businesses regardless of the costs imposed upon the general public. When in doubt, follow the money trail.
To be sure, the categories of people involved are not mutually exclusive. In each you can find both “Baptists” and “bootleggers.” In all my years studying the subject of political economy, no issue has so thoroughly conformed to the general pattern public choice theory as this one. Since most people are largely ignorant of the topic, they are easily swayed without realizing the fundamental costs they are imposing on them selves and others. Moreover, the bandwagon is easy because one can think of oneself as a conscientious per son willing to do the right thing. This is why I am a global warming skeptic.
Paul A. Cleveland is Professor of Economics at Birmingham-Southern College, Birmingham, Alabama
1 Dr. Gray’s discussion of the matter can be found in a podcast online at www.tcsdaily.com/multimedia.aspx?id=S.
2George Taylor, “Hurricanes and Global Warming: Is There a Link?” TCSDaily article, www.tcsdaily.com.
3Richard Lindzen, “Don’t Believe the Hype: Al Gore is wrong. There’s no ‘consensus’ on global warming,” WSJ(July 2, 2006).
5Bruce Yandle, “Bootleggers, Baptists, and Global Warming,” http:/ /www.perc.org/perc.php?id= 193.