THE WEEKLY STANDARD
April 24, 2000
EARTH DAY IS UPON US, and by way of celebration the publisher of Al Gore's 1992 self-styled "personal journey . . . in search of a true understanding of the global ecological crisis" has decided to reissue an unchanged version of the book. This decision should make George W. Bush a lot happier than it does the vice president. For if ever there was an intemperate statement of what environmentalists seek -- or at least that faction of the movement with no sense of the economic and human costs of some of the greener proposals -- Earth in the Balance is it.
Gore tells us that his understanding of environmental issues started "on our family farm," and that he still remembers "how important it is to stop up the smallest gully 'before it gets started good.'" This early understanding of the need to preserve the environment was buttressed when his mother introduced him to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, with its warning of the dire consequence of the use of pesticides, and when he learned that Agent Orange "was the suspected cause of chromosomal damage" -- the combined effect being to make the vice president "wary of all chemicals that have extraordinarily powerful effects on the world around us." One of the effects of Agent Orange, noted but not integrated by Gore into any attempt to appraise its overall usefulness in Vietnam, was that "the people who wanted to shoot at us had fewer places to hide." Sounds like a significant benefit to tally against a "suspected" cost.
All of this led Gore to run for president in 1987 "to elevate the importance of the crisis as a political issue." Of course, when pollsters told him that the environment was not high on voters' list of concerns, "I came to downplay it in my standard stump speech." Cynical opportunism? Certainly not: "I continued to emphasize it heavily in my meetings with editorial boards." Besides -- shades of his current boss -- Gore felt deep remorse over his own weakness: "I simply lacked the strength to keep talking about the environmental crisis constantly whether it was being reported in the press or not." Summary: My campaign was guided by the polls, which led me to stop discussing publicly the issue about which I felt so deeply that it prompted me to seek the world's most powerful office. And I'm sorry that I was so weak.
But Gore soon turned over a new leaf. By 1993, as he wrote in an introduction to the paperback edition of Earth in the Balance, he had become -- get this -- "impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously." This from the man who takes polls to decide what color suits to wear and hires consultants to tell him how to behave like an alpha-male.
When it comes to describing the state of the nation's environment, however, Gore certainly is true to his aim of avoiding caution. Apocalypse now -- right now -- is how he sees it. "Our system is on the verge of losing its essential equilibrium"; we face "a catastrophe in the making" and "unprecedented social and political upheavals" as a result of climate change; the demise of the spotted owl "would mark the loss of an entire ecosystem"; a waste disposal crisis is looming that "stems from our lost sense of place within the natural world."
As population increases explosively and "urbanization continues to disrupt traditional cultural patterns," "hundreds of millions of people may well become ever more susceptible to the spread of diseases when populations of pests, germs, and viruses migrate with the changing climate patterns." There is more, but you get the point: We are headed for a hot place in a handbasket.
Note the "may well" in the last quoted sentence. It seems to suggest that we really can't be certain about at least some aspects of the crisis. Never mind. "It is all too easy to . . . overstudy the problem," Gore assures us. And "research in lieu of action is unconscionable." Never mind that scientists are less certain than Gore. David E. Parker of the Hadley Centre of Britain's Meteorological Office, for instance, expressed the views of many of his colleagues in a recent issue of Science when he wrote, "The consensus is that major advances are needed in our modeling and interpretation of temperature profiles, along with considerable improvements in data acquisition [and] documentation . . . and their analysis by the scientific community worldwide." To the "impatient" Gore, apocalypse now requires action now.
Alas for Al Gore's sense of apocalypse, sufficient time has elapsed since he wrote Earth in the Balance for two things to happen. First, evidence has accumulated that calls into question whether the earth is indeed warming, and, if it is, whether that is necessarily a bad thing. Second, we can now look at some of Gore's predictions to see just how little sense it would have made in 1992, and would make now, to spend huge sums avoiding the collapse he expects in the world's ecosystem.
Start with the temperature data. Some readings show a slight rise in the earth's surface temperature in recent decades. But these observed temperature changes on land are not to be seen in the readings accumulated from satellites, suggesting that the land-based readings might be misleading. And scientists such as Arthur Robinson and Noah Robinson of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine have had time to study very long-run data, an analysis that reveals that earth temperatures are now near their 3,000-year average (readings based on isotopic ratios in the skeletons of marine organisms) "and clearly are not unusual."
Worse still for the Gore hypothesis, physical and social scientists have begun to point out that warming would bring benefits as well as costs. The Robinsons point out that increased use of carbon-based fuels has accelerated the growth of forests and animals. Others note that even the most extreme predictions of warming foresee temperature increases of a lesser magnitude than Americans have voluntarily sought by heading for the Sun Belt, Florida, and southern California. Not many folks have chosen to give up Florida for Massachusetts or North Dakota.
Gore's second major problem is a version of that which Irving Kristol long ago pointed out is faced by all liberals: He has been mugged by reality. Our failure to develop environmentally efficient products, says Gore circa 1992, dooms us to trail Japan in economic growth. Well, Japan entered a deep and prolonged recession shortly after that was written, while the American economy has grown at rates that were deemed unattainable only a few years ago.
Then there is the issue of California's drought, the sharp drop in snowfall, and a snowpack that was at the time of Gore's writing "15 percent of the normal volume," all occurring as "global temperatures have reached record high levels." The consequences of that drought, Gore then noted, "are already staggering and may get worse." They didn't. Snowpack, precipitation, and reservoir storage data from the California Department of Water Resources show that in most years since 1992 the snowpack and precipitation conditions have far exceeded the 50-year average that is used as a yardstick, and reservoir storage has been above the historic average since 1995.
One can't fault Gore merely for getting some things wrong. What he can legitimately be faulted for is using highly uncertain predictions of warming and its consequences to buttress a case for excessively intrusive government regulation of the way we live, drive, and work. One wonders which came first: the desire to order other people's lives, or the desire to preserve the environment. After all, this is a man who thinks suburbanites can't be trusted to decide for themselves whether to have sidewalks in their communities, and that Americans can't be trusted to invest their own retirement funds. Those are jobs for super-government.
This much is clear: Gore has never met an environmental issue that didn't strike him as an urgent reason for bigger government. During the European subsistence crisis of 1816-17, Gore notes with what to this reader seems some satisfaction, "the bureaucratic, administrative tendencies of the modern state were given great impetus." And the disruptive effects of our Dust Bowl in the 1930s led to "an even more complex version of the administrative state, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal." These developments Gore labels "human adaptation to climate change."
That the vice president, given the opportunity to do so, would further expand the reach of the state there can be little doubt. He thinks that "we are doing virtually nothing" to address the issue of global warming, and that "we are unwilling to look beyond ourselves to see the effect of our action today on our children and grandchildren." An odd and ungrateful charge to level against a generation that has spent billions to clean up the environment, that has improved the quality of our rivers and our air, and that has required new industrial installations to incorporate equipment that will surely make the lives of the coming generation better than our own -- all at our own, unselfish cost.
Still, Gore wants more -- more spending, more taxing, more regulating. In the case of the Kyoto protocol, the international agreement ostensibly aimed at reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, the fact that the Senate is almost unanimously opposed to its ratification is unlikely to stop Gore from anyhow complying with its terms. He will accomplish by administrative fiat what he cannot accomplish using constitutionally mandated treaty-ratification procedures. After all, his handpicked head of the Environmental Protection Agency is well known for pushing regulation by fiat so far beyond what the law allows that the courts have pulled her up short -- something courts dominated by Gore appointees would be highly unlikely to do.
The good news is that Americans have, by and large, so far gotten what they paid for in terms of environmental enhancement. According to the non-partisan and highly respected think tank Resources for the Future, the costs and benefits of the various bits of environmental legislation so far adopted are about in balance. The name of the game in the future will be to avoid spending great sums on trivial and inconsequential environmental improvements, but to make only those expenditures that can be justified by their probable benefits. That, alas, is not what the vice president -- on the evidence of his book, an environmental absolutist -- has in mind. On the other hand, as in 1988, he has barely mentioned the environmental apocalypse in his stump speeches this year. Maybe, just maybe, he is still a cynical opportunist with a finger to the political winds. Let's hope so.