Anyone trying to make sense of the global warming controversy that will reach a crescendo with the writing of a climate treaty in Kyoto, Japan in December would do well to think back to the “acid rain” controversy in the 1970s.
We don’t hear much about acid rain these days, but back in the 1970s it was regarded as one of the most significant environmental problems in North America. Sulfur dioxide from power plants and other industrial sources was thought to be mixing with rain and posing a mortal threat to our northeastern forests and lakes. A consensus formed that Something Must Be Done Now.
Good policy depends on good information, however, so in 1980 President Carter set in motion the largest scientific study in U.S. history to determine the scope of the acid rain problem and to suggest solutions. The government took eight years and spent $500 million on the acid rain study only to conclude in 1988 that the acid rain threat had been wildly overexaggerated. Not only was acid rain a minor problem, but where acid rain genuinely threatened lakes or forests, the problem could be treated cheaply for less than $100 million a year by simply treating acidified lakes and forests with alkaline compounds.
Needless to say, this was not the politically correct diagnosis of the problem. Both Congress and the environmental lobby ignored the results of the acid rain study, and pushed for new clean air regulations to reduce sulfur dioxide that cost consumers over $5 billion a year (a cost disproportionately borne by the Ohio valley region, where coal-fired power plants are a major source of electricity). Resources for the Future, a moderate environmental group in Washington, rightly called this policy “a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem.”
Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, and with the global warming controversy history is repeating itself in ways that are both tragic and farcical. We are again told that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that catastrophic global warming is imminent unless we Do Something Now, though this is far from accurate. There are hundreds of reputable climate scientists who harbor doubts about the theory, or the prospective severity, of global warming. They are routinely vilified by the press, Vice President Gore, and environmentalists for their honest doubts.
But even if the catastrophic global warming hypothesis is true, does the answer require wholesale changes in the modern economy, costing potentially trillions of dollars? Are we about to adopt a trillion-dollar solution to a billion dollar problem? Since the problem is that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, are there ways we might reflect some heat back into space? Turns out that this is a simple, and not terribly expensive problem. As we find out every time a volcano erupts somewhere around the world, the climate is very sensitive to high altitude aerosols. Several physicists have calculated that we could remedy whatever global warming may be upon us for a few hundred million dollars a year by such simple techniques as additives to jet fuel that would provide reflective aerosols at high altitude from jet exhaust.
Once again, the simple technological fix is not politically correct. Instead, the crisis mongers tell us that we need to reduce our energy consumption drastically, and make other wholesale changes to our industrial economy. Vice President Gore has gone as far as to suggest (in his book Earth in the Balance) that we need to abolish the internal combustion engine entirely over the next 25 years. (He also wrote that the car is a greater enemy to American civilization than all of the armies we have faced in war.)
The global warming hysterics eschew the easy technological fixes available to us because they believe that we have a “dysfunctional civilization” (Gore’s words again) that requires radical transformation. Global warming, the mother of all apocalyptic scares, is the perfect pretext for imposing the massive changes the enlightened elite thinks we need. It is no accident that the announcement last week of a “breakthrough” technology for non-polluting “fuel cell” cars comes during the run-up to the Kyoto conference. But fuel cell cars are hardly a “breakthrough.” In their current state, they would cost $150,000, carry only one person and only travel 15 miles at 20 miles per hour.
The global warming crusade is a farce, of course, but it could have tragic consequences in lost jobs and diminished income for millions of Americans if these latter-day flat-earthers have their way.
Steven Hayward is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.