March 16, 2021 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Global Warming Has Begun” announced the New York Times in mid-1988, predicting a temperature and sea level rise by 2050 of as much as 9 degrees and 4 feet, respectively. 

The majority of East Coast beaches could be gone by 2020, warned the Times in 1995. And just last week at the publication formerly known as the newspaper of record: “Shifts in Atlantic Hint at Danger.”

Don’t let this tsunami of climate-change alarm distract and fool you. Today’s push for government solutions to a global market failure is right out of the Malthusian playbook. Remember the “population bomb” of the 1960s? Resource exhaustion of the 1970s? Soil erosion, water famines, global cooling?

Back then, the consensus tried to demean, isolate, and cancel contrarian Julian Simon. The science was settled that more people equals more problems (the I=PAT equation), and “depletable” resources could not be replenished.

Simon won on the facts and outfoxed the consensus with his famous wager on the future of mineral-resource prices, “The Bet.” Playing offense against climate exaggeration and gloom can win too.

There is a case for climate optimism, not pessimism, whether or not global warming is the result of nature, humankind, or both. Physical change can be good or bad, depending on a variety of factors. Self-interest and entrepreneurship capitalize on the good and ameliorate the bad. The obvious climate policy for government at all levels is do no harm in the anticipation/adaptation process.

In 2004, I published Climate Alarmism Reconsidered with the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London. Written 16 years after James Hansen’s climate-scare testimony, and 16 years before Joe Biden’s recent “climate day,” the booklet began with this ten-point summary (an IEA tradition):

  • The energy sustainability issues of resource depletion, reliability (security), and pollution have been effectively addressed by market entrepreneurship, technology, and, in the absence of private property rights, measured regulation. Continuing improvement is expected.
  • The remaining carbon energy-related sustainability issue concerns anthropogenic (man-made) climate change. Current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations are approximately 52 per cent above pre-industrial levels with an associated increase in global warming potential of 66 percent. Emissions released in the mining, transportation and combustion of oil, natural gas, and coal account for most of this accumulation.
  • The balance of evidence points towards a benign temperature “greenhouse signal.” A greenhouse signal has not been identified with weather extremes or “surprises.”
  • Enhanced atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations create tangible benefits to offset any costs associated with anthropogenic climate change.
  • Liberal energy markets foster wealth creation, adaptation and social resilience – a positive strategy to deal with inevitable climate change, natural and anthropogenic. In addition, free-market reforms in the energy sector harness self-interest in energy efficiency, which has historically tended to reduce GHG emissions per unit of energy.
  • Mandatory GHG emission reductions beyond “no regrets” actions produce costs in excess of benefits under realistic assumptions, including discounting future benefits (if discernible) to compare with near-term costs.
  • Serious efforts to equilibrate the carbon cycle will have to employ novel sequestration strategies given increasing energy usage, supply constraints with renewable energies, and political and economic limitations with nuclear power.
  • Activist proposals for GHG reductions such as cap-and-trade programs should be cognizant of the unintended consequences of open-ended regulatory regimes driven by temporary political majorities.
  • The precautionary principle should be applied to government intervention limiting GHG emissions (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol), not just to acts of man on the natural environment. The economic risks of intervention, in other words, must be evaluated along with environmental ones.
  • The major threat to energy sustainability is statism, not depletion, pollution, reliability, or anthropogenic climate change. Major government interventions in energy markets, such as price controls, access restrictions, or carbon suppression, create the energy problems that non-politicised, free-market processes work to prevent.

Today, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has risen; the Paris Climate Accord has replaced the Kyoto Protocol internationally; carbon taxes and tariffs (“border adjustments”) are on the table, not cap-and-trade; and a doomsday narrative has crowded out the case for global lukewarming and CO2 enrichment

Meanwhile, climate science remains unsettled about the what, when, where, and why of climate change. Climate models are too artificial and imprecise for global and particularly regional prediction. Recorded data on extreme events (the center of today’s hyperbole) fail to confirm negative trends in hurricane intensity and landfall, drought and floods, U.S. wildfires, and ocean acidification. And the most important climate statistic of all? As documented by Bjorn Lomborg: “Global death risk from extreme weather has declined 99% over 100 years and global costs have declined 26% over the last 28 years.”

Back in the Malthusian heyday, ecological economist Kenneth Boulding confessed: “Is there any more single-minded, simple pleasure than viewing with alarm? At times it is even better than sex.” Whatever the attraction, today’s climate alarm, now in its 33rd year, shows little sign of abatement within the green establishment or in government. 

The real threat is climate policy, not physical climate change itself. Affordable, reliable energy, free international trade, and lifestyle norms hang in the balance.

Robert L. Bradley Jr.

Robert L. Bradley

Robert L. Bradley Jr., AIER Senior Fellow, is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Energy Research. He is author of eight books on energy history and public policy and blogs at MasterResource.

Bradley received a B.A. in economics from Rollins College, an M.A. in economics from the University of Houston, and a Ph.D. in political economy from International College.

He has been a Schultz Fellow for Economic Research and Liberty Fund Fellow for Economic Research, and in 2002 he received the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award for his work on energy and sustainable development.

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