TCS Daily

Paul Ehrlich vs. the IPCC

By Tim Worstall - September 9, 2004 12:00 AM

God save Paul Ehrlich, patron saint of lazy hacks (coff, coff) the world over. He appears to be incapable of opening his mouth without providing a comment suitable for refutation and derision in a thousand articles, his latest being this from the New York Times:

"I have severe doubts that we can support even two billion if they all live like citizens of the U.S.," he said. "The world can support a lot more vegetarian saints than Hummer-driving idiots."

It's a less than magisterial response to an article that trashes his public stance of the past 35 years that there is nothing we can do to solve the population problem. The article pointed out that we have actually solved it and we did so by getting rich. I will agree that he got one thing right, that the world would be a better place with more saints than idiots; but that appears not to be the way the Good Lord planned it.

His more substantial point, that the world cannot support 2 billion at US standards of living, is easily refutable. In fact, it is refuted by a large and well known piece of research that the Professor himself urges us all to take note of. I refer, of course, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. There are many here and elsewhere who have doubts about the science behind the report but let us, for a moment, take the authors at their word. The foundation of the whole process is the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) which provides the emissions that are then run through the various climate and temperature models. We know very well the conclusion that is reached, that global warming is coming and we have to do something about it. As indeed we are doing something about it, some things sensible, like researching non-fossil fuel methods of energy generation, others less so, like spending fortunes on the implementation of such methods before finishing that research.

There are a number of points that one could make about the internal workings of the SRES itself. Population is treated as exogenous to the models (jargon from the priestly caste of economists for the idea that population is a given number, not something which the actions within the model itself influence) which is quite clearly untrue. The use of regional growth figures rather than national leads to the absurd idea that N. Korea in 2100 will be richer than the US in 2100. (Well, OK, that might actually be true, or at least possible. They abandon Hereditary Stalinism and the US elects Hillary in '08 and '12 to be followed by Chelsea and then her brood by whichever Kennedy hasn't killed himself or someone else by then.) The scenarios use market exchange rates rather than the more correct purchasing power parity ones, thus overestimating the amount of growth likely....well, one can go on with these minor matters but to most they are just economists and statisticians screaming at each other. Eyes glaze over and the substantial points get lost in the nit-picking induced narcolepsy. I might want the research upon which we are supposed to base a trillions of dollars decision to have spent a few hundred thousand more on getting these points right but maybe I'm just picky or something.

There is one point that I would like to draw your attention to. It is that a basic assumption of the models and scenarios is that, in 2100, the entire population of the planet is assumed to be living at or around current US levels of wealth. Interesting little factoid, no? It is upon precisely that point that the entire structure of worry over global warming is based. Yes, I agree, the report states that this will lead to warming, yet it also states that this can be averted by reducing or eliminating our use of fossil fuels. Don't forget, we are still assuming that all of what the report tells us is true. So, if as we are urged, we manage to control emissions, what other problems are there that could stop the entire world living at US levels of comfort and wealth?

The largest, perhaps the only, study that has been done in any detail into the possible paths of the world's economy and wealth over the next century states that there are no other such problems. We won't run out of land, topsoil, food, water, metals, resources or whatever else it is that Ehrlich and fellow dystopians are thinking about this week. That appears to me to be a reason for rejoicing, that the very study which is held over our heads to show how terrible the future will be is based upon assumptions that completely refute the good Professor's latest pronouncement.

If Paul Ehrlich didn't exist I think we would have to invent him, if only to provide quotes for us to deride.

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


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