It's Al's apocalypse, but it's not the end of the world
May 10, 2000
by Irwin Stelzer
THE SUNDAY TIMES April 16, 2000
The vice-president is using eco-panic for his own ends, but the figures are far out, writes Irwin Stelzer
Earth Day is upon us, and by way of celebration we have two contributions to the debate on environmental policy. Last week Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong and now European commissioner for external affairs, kicked off this year's series of Reith Lectures. And in a few days the publisher of the American vice-president Al Gore's 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, will reissue it.
Of the two, Patten's lecture was the more sensible. He pointed out that democracies are kinder to the environment than dictatorships, that accountability is "the hallmark of good, efficient government" (rich, that, coming from a eurocrat), and that non-governmental organizations play an important role in making international environmental policy.
Little to quarrel with there. If an American may be permitted one quibble, it is with the statement that America's "contribution to the global struggle against climate change is hamstrung by the seeming political imperative of keeping energy prices low".
Low by the standards of overtaxed Europeans, perhaps. But not by the standards of an electorate less inclined to allow governments to appropriate as large a share of their hard-earned incomes as are voters in Europe.
Unlike Patten's unexceptionable recitation, Gore's is a hodgepodge of touchy-feely sentiments and dangerous policy prescriptions. The vice president, who spent the bulk of his early years living in a posh Washington hotel with his mother and senator-father, attributes his understanding of environmental issues to the fact that he started life "on our family farm".
His concern for the environment, Gore says, was the main reason that he first decided to run for president in 1987. Of course, when the pollsters told him that the environment was not high on the 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 ... I simply lacked the strength to keep talking about the environmental crisis." Summary: my campaign was guided by the polls, which led me to stop discussing publicly the issue about which I felt so deeply.
The vice-president's description of the state of the world's environment can best be described as apocalypse, now - right now. As population increases, "hundreds of millions of people may well become ever more susceptible to the spread of diseases". There is more, but you get the point: we are headed for a hot place in a hand basket.
Mark well 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 ... Research in lieu of action is unconscionable". So it matters not that David Parker, of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Berkshire, expressed the views of many other experts 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 ... and their analysis by the scientific community worldwide." To Gore, apocalypse now requires action now.
Unfortunately for Gore, sufficient time has elapsed since he wrote Earth in the Balance for evidence to accumulate that calls into question whether the planet is indeed warming and, if it is, whether that is good or bad.
Start with the most important facts: 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 long-run data, an analysis that reveals that Earth temperatures are near their 3,000-year average. Worse still for the Gore hypothesis, scientists question whether the effects of warming, if such there be, are necessarily a bad thing. The Robinsons point out that increased used of carbon-based fuels has accelerated the growth of forests and animals.
Gore's second major problem is that his forecasts have been mugged by reality. It seems that America's failure to develop environmentally efficient products, says Gore circa 1992, dooms it to trail Japan in economic growth. Since then, Japan has been in a deep recession and the American economy has grown at rates that were deemed unattainable only a few years ago.
Then there is the question of California's drought, the sharp drop in snowfall, and a snowpack that was at the time of Gore's writing "15% of the normal volume", all occurring as "global temperatures have reached record high levels". The consequences of the drought, notes Gore, "are already staggering and may get worse". They didn't. Snowpack, precipitation and reservoir storage data from the California water resources department show that, in most years since around the time Gore penned his dire forecast, all these indicators of water supply have far exceeded the 50-year average.
The reader can't help wondering whether the vice-president doesn't find the environmental cause congenial because he has the government bureaucrat's natural desire to tell people how to live, work and, especially, drive. After all, this is a man who thinks that suburbanites can't be left alone to decide whether to have pavements in their communities.
Gore also thinks that "we are unwilling to look beyond ourselves to see the effect of our action today on our children and grandchildren". Odd, that charge against an American generation that has spent billions to clean up the environment, so as to leave a better place for coming generations.
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.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.