TCS Daily


A Modest (Nine-Step) Proposal

By Stephen W. Stanton - February 3, 2003 12:00 AM

Recent polling data suggests we should dispense with scientific research altogether. Global warming is the problem. The three-part answer is adopting the Kyoto treaty, imposing higher fuel economy standards on SUV's, and putt-putting around town in electric cars. The people have spoken. Case closed.

Or is it? Sometimes the people are wrong. A few centuries ago, the public believed Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo was imprisoned for life for pointing out that Earth actually revolved around the Sun. Sometimes the experts are right, and sound science eventually wins out over popular opinion. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see the folly of earlier generations.

But even today, much of what we accept as common knowledge has no basis in fact. A 1987 Saturday Night Live sketch satirized this gap between truth and popular opinion. Game show contestants were asked a series of trivia questions. However, contestants did not receive credit for factually correct answers, only for the most popular answers from a survey of 17-year-old high school seniors. Who was the author of "Huckleberry Finn"? Tom Sawyer, of course. What is capital of Washington State? Must be Washington D.C.

Democracy's Weakness

Democracy's key flaw is that it measures ideas by their popularity, not their merits. Political strategists have long known that good ideas do not win elections. It takes votes. What better way is there to get votes than by giving people what they want? Even when the public demands some very silly things, if it gets votes, it gets done. Higher mileage requirements on SUV's? Ask and you shall receive.

But it is dangerous to always give people what they want. They often want bad public policy. Two hundred years ago, many Americans believed black people could be owned as property. It was only in the last century that Americans finally decided that women have the right to vote. And today, a political outcry over global warming is drowning out the facts of the debate.

Is the burning of fossil fuels leading to catastrophic global warming? After all, some people have claimed that global warming is the most momentous problem facing the United States, as Jimmy Carter, John Glenn and other environmental activists stated in a letter. But is it?

For the Sake of Argument

For the moment, let's join the New York Times and assume the worst case scenario is true. Let's stipulate that global warming is caused by CO2, that the problem is severe, and that automobiles are largely to blame. It seems their solution does not really solve the problem. They propose raising fuel economy standards on SUV's.

Holding all other factors constant, then yes, slightly better mileage from our SUV's would slightly reduce emissions. That would slightly moderate global warming, though probably not enough to make any practical difference. Why? The problem is two-fold.

First, we cannot hold other factors constant. Higher gas mileage equates to cheaper and perhaps more frequent travel. Moreover, there could be a severe economic impact to further fuel economy regulation.

But the real problem is not the fuel mileage of SUV's. For example, many of my Manhattan colleagues burn more jet fuel per capita than gasoline, which cranks out the same CO2 as a Chevy Suburban. Activists want to save fuel by encouraging people to use mass transit instead of driving. They do not realize that the New York City subway system uses enough electricity to light up the City of Buffalo. Where does this electricity come from? (Hint: Do you see any hydroelectric dams along the Hudson River? How about nuclear reactors?) You guessed it. Fossil fuels keep the subways running and Times Square shining.

A Modest Proposal

So, assuming that fossil fuels are responsible for global warming, and that it is a very bad thing, what should we do? I suggest we address the root causes:

  1. Stop driving altogether. Emissions are not only the result of each vehicle's fuel efficiency, but also the total number of vehicles on the road.

  2. Stop commuting. Cars, buses and even trains burn fossil fuels. Every trip in a powered vehicle adds more CO2 into the atmosphere. You can still walk, bike or skate. Otherwise, stay home and telecommute.

  3. Stop traveling. Planes and cruise ships measure fuel economy in gallons per mile, burning fuel almost as fast as you pump it into your car. (Sailboats are still OK.)

  4. Outlaw fire, which emits carbon dioxide. This eliminates heating for most homes the country and all combustion engines. (This makes points 1 through 3 moot.)

  5. Do not use electricity at all unless your area uses solar, wind, hydro or nuclear power exclusively. Encourage construction of such facilities.

  6. Kill birds and mammals. Their high metabolisms crank out CO2 at a much faster rate than reptiles. Bovine flatulence is a major source of methane emissions. (Interestingly, steaks emit no harmful gases. Too bad you can only cook one near a hydroelectric dam, a nuclear reactor, or, weather permitting, a solar panel or wind turbine.)

  7. Eat less and exercise less. The faster your metabolism, the more CO2 you emit. Be eco-friendly, be skinny and sedentary. When you huff and puff, the terrorists win.

  8. Breed less. Each child you bear will create tons of CO2 just by breathing. If he ever drives a car or lights a match, the problem just gets that much worse.

  9. Reflect back the Sun's rays to offset global warming by painting a few Southern states white, including every rooftop, roadway, and open space. It does nothing to reduce greenhouse gases, but fights global warming directly. (The idea was put forth by Forbes columnist Tim W. Ferguson)


Looking at this list, it becomes clear that we are not serious about global warming. At least, it is not our first priority. Nor should it be. We cheer higher auto sales and new home construction as a sign of a strong economy. In many nations, government subsidies prop up the air travel industry. Two of our biggest industries are fast food and fitness, both of which drive metabolism and more CO2 production per capita. Our tax code rewards people for having children, each of whom will produce a kilogram of CO2 a day for life.

While this nine point plan would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the tradeoffs are too great. In fact, the only proposal that has a chance is the construction of solar, wind, nuclear and hydroelectric power facilities. Of these options, nuclear power is the only one close to economic feasibility. Yet the technology is unpopular among the same activists demanding reduced emissions.

Is global warming a serious problem? I honestly don't know. But neither does anybody else, no matter what they say. There has been a lot of research on the topic, yet very little agreement. More research is needed. Not sound bites, not polls... Real, honest research based on good old-fashioned facts, so we can eventually learn the truth about global warming.

In the meantime, somebody tell Jimmy Carter that there are more pressing matters on our hands. Millions of people starve every year. AIDS is destroying entire generations in Africa. The threat of a nuclear attack is as high as it has been since Kennedy's administration. Even if the worst-case predictions about global warming are true, the problem is solvable, and far from imminent.
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