TCS Daily


Bjorn's Long March

By James Pinkerton - February 11, 2002 12:00 AM

In politics, there are no final victories. But there are gradual defeats. Almost a year ago, the Bush Administration kiboshed the Kyoto Treaty, calling it "fatally flawed." But now, the issue is back. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal report the Bush Administration is eyeing a "gradualist" strategy toward the limitation of CO2 emissions.

The Bush folks may think that they have a slow-walking strategy for working out a compromise -- short of the draconian Kyoto limits, which mandate steep reductions in energy use by 2010. But of course, no matter what they do, the Bushmen will be out of office by January 2009. Is it impossible to imagine that they will, consciously or unconsciously, seek to kick the policy-can forward, into someone else's presidency?

But those with a longer time horizon can wait that long, or even longer. The political left, in particular, has always understood the value of patience. The Fabian Society was founded in 1884 to bring socialism to Britain; its name was derived from a Roman general who outwaited his foes. And gradualism was also strategy put forth by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s; he urged his fellow lefty intellectuals to make a marcia delle instituzioni, "march through the institutions," so that one day, brainy leftists would sit atop the commanding heights of the discourse -- in the media, in the academy, in the bureaucracy. And isn't that much pretty much what's happened? Today, from those vantage points of power, the left might not be able to win, but it can never really lose.

So what should free market advocates and enviroskeptics do? They might start by recognizing that, while politicians come and go, ideas last forever. And then they might consider the cautionary case study of civil rights over the last half-century.

In the 1950s, the pro-civil rights forces didn't have the votes in Congress to enact civil rights legislation. But rather than just accept defeat, the liberal team put in motion a process for maintaining their ideological momentum while they gathered their political strength.

For example, they succeeded in establishing the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1957. To the racists and reactionaries of the day, the Commission wasn't that big a deal; after all, it had no power to do anything other than "study" race relations. What mattered most, Strom Thurmond and others thought to themselves, was that legislation with enforcement teeth had been thwarted.

But of course, the power to generate ideas is the power to set the agenda. So all through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Commission -- working closely with sympathetic reporters, commentators, and other opinion leaders -- issued reports and findings that stoked and provoked the conscience of the nation.

Within a few years, roused public opinion forced Congress into a flurry of lawmaking. Indeed, the impetus behind civil rights was so enormous that even after de jure segregation was demolished, the movement kept moving. Today, toothy civil rights enforcement, scattered across hundreds of agencies and covering all manner of racial and sexual categories and quotas, is a billion-dollar line item for Uncle Sam.

Some might argue that "civil rights" has lost much of its original moral mission. Maybe so, but what can't be argued is that idea-oriented activists set up a single institution, marched through it, and then created a bunch more institutions and marched through them, too. And American society has been transformed. Yes, the change was gradual, but it was also profound and probably permanent.

So now to another big agenda item for the left: Global warming. Right now, most people probably assume that civil rights and global warming are two progressive peas in the same left-leaning pod. To be sure, environmentalism has gained mind share on the left over the past few decades, but most liberals haven't yet understood that the pursuit of environmental goals contradicts egalitarian objectives.

Which is why everyone on the political left should meet their fellow leftist, Bjørn Lomborg, who is attempting to start a counter-march through the institutions. Lomborg, a professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, challenges the enviros on their proudest premise: that their program will make the world a better place. Describing himself as "an ex-Greenpeace guy," he has written a provocative new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World.

Lomborg freely admits that he is a statistician, not an earth scientist. As he told a recent forum at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York City, "I didn't go out and measure any temperatures." Instead, true to his statistical calling, he gathered numbers. And then, in the tradition of Julian Simon and Gregg Easterbrook, he followed the trail of his data, leading him to the conclusion that, "things are getting better, doomsday is not near."

Environmentalists have blasted him. In its January issue, Scientific American published five pieces of rebuttal. Lomborg responded by posting the articles, plus his refuting annotations, on his website, and so the eco-battle is joined.

The strength of Lomborg's work is his reliance on stats already accepted in the scientific discourse. For example, Lomborg accepts the proposition that global warming is real and will do significant damage to the earth by 2100. But then, armored with footnotes at every step in his logical progression, he observes that the cost of complying with Kyoto will be between $150-$350 billion a year. And yet for all that expenditure, the treaty will still push the bad climatic effects back by only six years or so. "How much should we spend now to forestall effects from 2100 to 2106?" he wonders. And yet for the cost of a single year's Kyoto compliance, according to World Bank data, every child in the world could have clean water and sanitation.

Lomborg displays a Benthamite cost-benefit breeziness when he says, "If you want to save butterflies rather than kids, that's fine." Lomborg thinks that it's more important to take care of people - and to spend what it takes to take care of them. As he asserts -- still ironing out the kinks in his second-language syntax -- "Investing in the Kyoto treaty is one of the least-good ways to help the poor."

Yet to date the Bush administration hasn't advanced Lomborg's argument. Why not? Perhaps because it rejects the global warming argument out of hand. But if that's the case, why are they now cobbling together a compromise? Indeed, every "gradualist" step toward compromise that the Bushies take is, in reality, a step in retreat from the global-warming-is-a-crock position the President once adhered to. Another possible explanation is that the administration, mindful of the fragile fiscal situation, doesn't want to commit to the additional anti-poverty spending that might result from a reallocation of Kyoto-compliance resources.

Those are both reasonable arguments, but they have one thing in common: they're short term. Meanwhile, the other side is thinking longer term, gathering its intellectual moss, continuing to roll downward on a road that stretches ahead for decades. The United Nations-spawned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, is the hub of the pro-Kyoto intelligentsia; its 2200 scientists extend their spokes into virtually every university and institute on the planet. To IPCCers, it doesn't much matter if intrepid and honest scientists such as Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon punch holes in their work. As another leftist political thinker, V.I. Lenin, put it, "Quantity has a quality of its own."

The power - or at least the weight - of ideas carried red ideology a fair piece. It carried the black-and-white issue even further. Now, how far will it take the greens? There's no way to know now, but enviroskeptics in the Bush White House would do well to harness the power of Bjorn Lomborg's ideas before they find out.
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