TCS Daily

Rely on Human Ingenuity for Addressing Climate Challenge

By Sallie Baliunas - July 3, 2001 12:00 AM

English economist Thomas Malthus gazed ahead to the 19th Century and forecast that the golden age for mankind would languish, and that future generations would grind out only a life of grueling subsistence.

But Malthus erred: he ignored the great variable in the equation of progress - the ability of humans in freedom to adapt and innovate.

That lesson is worth remembering in deciphering the recent news coverage of the National Academy of Sciences report to the Bush administration on human-made global warming.

Eleven top American scientists reviewed progress in forecasting climate change. The report said that the globe has warmed in the 20th century, which few researchers ever disputed. It indicated with definite and scientifically proper incertitude that mankind may have contributed some small fraction of scant recent warming thought to be caused by burning fossil fuels and reducing area covered by rain forests around the world.

"Calamatologists" in the activist community, media and Congress have incorrectly spun the report to urge radical and immediate correction to climate change.

"This should be the final science needed to take action on global climate change," said Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) Environment and Health Director Susan T. West. "Human activity is changing our climate, threatening the health of our children and other vulnerable populations. We must take action now."

The proponents of radical action on climate change simply overstate the scientific evidence of danger. The Academy report's summary soberly notes, "Because there is considerable uncertainty in current understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols, current estimates of the magnitude of future warming should be regarded as tentative and subject to future adjustments (either upward or downwards)."

The report's final chapter correctly warns against underplaying the uncertainties. Doing so, the Academy remarked, "could give the impression that the science of global warming is 'settled,' even though many uncertainties remain."

So, what are the best ways to approach this serious matter? Certainly not the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. President Bush wisely walked away from that defective deal, and the NAS report provides no scientific reason for him to return to it.

First and foremost, science finds no reliable evidence for catastrophic human-made warming. Second, the cost of implementing the accord is too high for the phantom climate benefits resulting from the Kyoto agreement.

The Clinton administration's own Energy Information Administration estimated electricity price increases of 20 percent to 66 percent, job losses of 1.2 million to 4.9 million and an overall cost to the U.S. economy as high as $440 billion. Other studies by top private analysis firms such as Standard & Poor's DRI, WEFA and Charles River Associates show similar losses. Then USA Today reported in the middle of last month that key Clinton aides knew their cost estimates were unrealistic, in part because they regarded key Kyoto Protocol nonparticipants China and India as full partners agreeing to live by the treaty's terms.

The Clinton administration, in assuming the science of climate change was "settled," left an impression of finality that could risk the fundamental investment needed for improved climate measurements, theory and computational resources. The NAS suggested a better course: one vital need is to improve our knowledge of climate science.

Furthermore, the nation needs to eliminate impediments to cleaner, more efficient energy generating equipment and to exploration and development of e.g., natural gas and nuclear resources.

Best of all, technological advance, free from unnecessary governmental control, offers the hope to create energy use that makes environmental and economic sense. As the Clinton administration proudly pointed out last fall, such innovation in the 1990s allowed the economy in the last two years of the decade to grow by a robust 8 percent while emissions grew a bare 1 percent.

Science and technology will render the calamitous predictions about global warming in the high-tech 21st century as utterly wrong as Malthus forecast two centuries ago. Human ingenuity is one very reliable variable that too often turns up missing in the equation.

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