Earth Day and its Discontents — April 23, 2012

There was a picture of the Earth drawn in chalk on the sidewalk.  The central square in the little Midwestern college town was rimmed with booths offering pamphlets and sign-up sheets.  A stage had been set up, on which some surprisingly good singers sang John Denver songs and other tunes from the seventies.  But in the unseasonable chill of the spring day, the expected audience was absent.  It was too cold.  Everybody stayed home.

It was Earth Day at my alma mater, and the metaphor struck me as apt: amid the chilly wind of a severe economic downturn, few people are in the mood to support today’s environmental Great Cause, the fight against global warming.  Polls repeatedly show that it has virtually fallen off the radar as an item of concern for American voters.

The first Earth Day was launched over forty years ago as an effort to fight pollution and clean up the planet.  And small wonder.  It was only a few years earlier that Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire due to all the industrial sludge it carried.  Toxic waste horror stories like Love Canal gave people a sense that mankind had irreparably fouled its nest.

But in the years since, America’s air and water have been cleaned up substantially.  One might have hoped that the EPA, founded in 1970 to lend federal resources to the effort, might declare victory and close its doors.  But that would be to defy the natural workings of the bureaucracy.

To be sure, there is still work to be done.  Regulations on the books have to be enforced to keep our water drinkable.  And I would be in favor of development of bio-degradable plastics or greater recycling so fewer of the fish in our rivers and oceans strangle to death.  But the EPA has a far bigger objective: nothing less than to shrink America’s carbon footprint.

I’m not a global warming denier.  But the inconvenient truth is that the science on this issue is most certainly not settled, and no amount of Academy Awards or Nobel Prizes will make it otherwise.  Many scientists, for instance, believe that solar activity holds far more robust explanatory power than CO2 concentrations for changes in the earth’s climate.  And they are predicting a multi-decade period of below-normal sunspot activity, leading to global cooling.

Certainly the earth’s actual weather is not helping.  Global temperatures stopped rising about ten years ago.  The seas have stubbornly refused to rise (much to the frustration of low-lying island nations like Vanuatu, who had hoped for millions in rich countries’ cash to offset the threat of inundation).  Polar bears, once commonly thought to be threatened by a disappearing habitat, are according to local reports more numerous than ever.  And contrary to widespread predictions of recurring calamity, the 2005 series of killer hurricanes turns out to have been a fluke, not a foretaste.

The climatologist community has done their part as well to undermine interest in their cause.  As revealed in a series of leaked emails from Britain’s East Anglia University, a center of global warming academia, some of the discipline’s leading lights for years conspired to deny peer review and otherwise suppress heretical research.  More recently, another renowned climatologist admitted to hacking into the web site of the Heartland Institute, a prominent global warming skeptic think tank, seeking to discredit it by falsifying information.  One suspects that the global warming academy just might be less than fully confident in the strength of their own research.

It must be a source of great consternation to President Obama’s green bureaucracy – the EPA and the Energy Department – that the revolution in gas and oil production made possible by advances in hydraulic fracturing has made these carbon-based fuels so abundant, and in the case of natural gas, phenomenally cheap.  It is already causing changes in the way utilities and large vehicle fleets such as Fed Ex are doing business, and it holds the potential to transform our energy economy.

Alas, that was not the sort of transformation that President Obama has in mind, so his green team continues in their effort to frog-march the country’s energy complex toward a world characterized by solar and wind power, electric cars, and high-speed rail.  None of these, incidentally, will be economically viable for at least a generation, if ever.  Indeed, General Motors has suspended production of its electric masterpiece, the Volt, because even with a $6,000 taxpayer subsidy it’s not competitive with other high-mileage vehicles.

With the clamor for global-warming solutions on the wane, one wonders why Obama persists in tilting at this windmill.  I can only conclude that he is a true believer, a devoted acolyte.  He doesn’t use the term global warming much; he’s clever enough to avoid terms that are unnecessarily polarizing.  Instead, he talks about the “energy of the future,” and the thousands of “green jobs” that are all well-paying and can’t be exported.

Well, if we’re looking for the energy of the future, we ought to consider the fact that we have proven and recoverable reserves of oil and natural gas to last over 100 years at current consumption levels locked away in our rock formations below ground.  And they are economically viable now.  And as to those un-exportable jobs, who says solar panels can’t be made cheaply in China?  They at least have the rare earth metals that are critical to solar construction.

The fact is, President Obama has deliberately and with forethought devoted billions and billions of taxpayer dollars to promote industries and product developments that suit his vision of where we ought to be going.  It has little to do with economics and much to do with global warming orthodoxy.  Recall that he promised cheering fans in Europe that his election would mark the moment that “the seas stopped rising.”  He believes this stuff completely.

For a microcosmic view of where this faith will take us, look no further than California.  In a gesture the perfectly illustrates the fatuous logic of liberal do-goodism, they passed their own cap-and-trade law, which will do nothing to reduce global emissions but will raise energy costs in the state – already the highest in the nation – yet higher.  Small wonder that the once Golden State of dreams and opportunity has been losing population at the rate of 500 souls every day over the last decade.

It will be the same nationwide if Obama gets his way – indeed, the assault on efficient energy is one reason for the sluggish recovery and slow job growth we have seen for the last three years.  So my proposal for this Earth Day is simple: by all means, let us be good stewards of the earth, and keep its air and water clean; but let us also use its gifts to promote the prosperity and well-being of its inhabitants.  A world that runs on carbon will be far happier than one forced to subsist on uneconomic sources of energy. And, I suspect, not one degree warmer.

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