A few years back a friend of mine purchased a first edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. As you might imagine, he paid a pretty penny for the book that free market thinkers have come to love.
But, Ayn Rand was also one of the very earliest anti-environmentalists in America. “In her analysis, the leaders of the environmental movement are motivated not by a genuine concern for human life, but by hatred — hatred for technology, for man and for man’s basic tool of survival, his mind.” (ari.aynrand.org, where you can also listen to a one hour speech she gave on this subject) In that 1970 speech the effects of greenhouse gas were being debated even then.
I find it amazing that more than 45 years later we are still debating whether or not global warming is real and perhaps, more importantly, whether it constitutes a real threat to mankind. A recent Pew Research study shows that 48% percent of Americans believe the earth is warming mostly due to human activity. Yet, only 28% think the scientists understand the causes and only 19% believe the scientists understand the best ways to address climate change.
While 42% believe that a litany of harms to wildlife, habitats, the weather, water shortages, forests and plants and rising sea levels will occur those percentages vary widely between Democrats at roughly 60% and Republicans at about 29%. Little wonder then that Mr. Trump made climate change an issue in the election.
Complicating the matter further is the fact that we won’t pay for changes that might improve our future! The Wall Street Journal reports that while 77% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, 43% would not add $1 a month to their utility bills to combat climate change. “The reality is that while most Americans see climate change as a collective threat, they don’t see it as a threat to them personally. This is potentially bad news for climate policy,” the Journal’s expert said.
Thus, it is also no surprise as The New York Times reports that, “Mr. Trump has already vowed to “cancel” last year’s Paris climate agreement, which commits more than 190 countries to reduce their emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution, and to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, Mr. Obama’s domestic climate change regulations.”
While there are numerous individuals making all kinds of claims on the web with regard to what is happening to our global climate, both good and bad, the chart below is from NASA’s climate website (climate.NASA.gov). I leave it to you to judge but it appears to me that, while there is variability on a yearly basis, we have had a sustained increase in median temperatures since the mid to late 1960s and a longer term upward trend line since about 1910.
NASA’s data also shows that, “the 10 warmest years in the 134-year record all have occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. The year 2015 ranks as the warmest on record.”
Equally important to our discussion is the following chart that shows that we have seen a near vertical rise in carbon dioxide (parts per million) in the atmosphere since 1950 to levels that are, today, well beyond any historical levels.
That is material because it appears there is a pretty strong correlation between the increase in greenhouse gases and the corresponding rise in temperature. I think it is also important to note that population growth, greater industrial production and the material increase in the burning of fossil fuel all have an impact on greenhouse gas and temperatures.
But, now we get to the real meat of the matter. What does it mean for mankind? Is it a threat that we must act upon or is it merely a hoax as the President elect has stated?
As background a recent PBS show noted that, “For the last 10,000 years, the Earth’s temperature has been fairly steady…. Yes, it’s risen and fallen, but all of human existence, everything we have ever done as a species has happened in this narrow temperature range.” In fact, NASA notes that during the ice age when the northern United States was covered by 3000 feet of ice average global temperatures were only five to nine degrees cooler than they are today.
To be sure there are organizations that believe that global warming is not a problem. Chief among them in the United States is the Heartland Institute which says, “Most scientists do not believe human greenhouse gas emissions are a proven threat to the environment or to human well-being, despite a barrage of propaganda insisting otherwise coming from the environmental movement and echoed by its sycophants in the mainstream media.” The only problem with this statement is that it is not true!
According to the American Institute of Physics ( AIP.org, which has a great history of the science of climate change on their web site), “early this century (the 21st) the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) conclusions were reviewed and endorsed by the national science academies of every major nation.”
The IPCC is the international body for assessing the science related to climate change. Their findings state that the, “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.
The Brookings Institute as recently as this month says that while the President elect, “was dismissive of climate change and even called it a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese …. The science is clearer and climate change won’t go away. The health effects of climate change and continued burning of fossil fuel will continue to beset Americans.”
The AIP writes that, “it became clear that even if all emissions could be instantly halted the gases already in the air would bring some additional warming for millennia.”
The IPCC concludes that, “the risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases. Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, wide- spread and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence).”
Personally, I’m a risk guy. I was paid to manage and control risk. In contrast to President elect Trump who is clearly a free market fellow the centrist in me, as well as the risk manager, does not believe global warming is a hoax. The data is overwhelming. It appears to me that there is a strong correlation between greenhouse gases and global warming. Given the risks described above it would seem prudent to me to make every effort to control those risks which is what the Paris Accord that the President elect wants to withdraw from is attempting to do. Honestly, this makes no sense to me.
The Brookings folks note that, “the U.S. has over recent years forged a role as a global leader on clean energy and climate change.” Why would we want to give that up? Why in the face of the science would we want to mine and burn more coal? Coal is the number one contributor among fossil fuels to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and it doesn’t matter if it is burned here or in China. In point of fact, China has signed on to the Paris Accord.
While the President elect, “pledged to bring the coal industry back, 100% by rolling back environmental regulations,” the Wall Street Journal notes that, “coal’s biggest problem is that it is no longer the cheapest fossil fuel around. It is being displaced by natural gas,” which also contributes far less to greenhouse gases. The CEO of American Electric Power, one of the nation’s biggest utility companies says of coal, “No matter who occupies the White House, it’s not coming back.”
That is because electric utilities that buy 95% of the coal are shuttering old coal burning plants in favor of natural gas plants. The Journal notes that, “Investors love gas burning power plants because they take less time to construct, cost less to operate and convert fuel into electricity with greater efficiency and half the carbon emissions.”
I really do understand that President Trump is a free market guy just as Ayn Rand was. I also understand he was running for office and wanted the votes in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But, if we, as a nation, are going to be successful, not just today, but for our children and their children we need to see reality as it is, not as we might want it to be.
The future is not about fossil fuel no matter what the President elect might say. Coal isn’t coming back 100%, nor should it. The President elect, in my opinion, would be far better served to take the time to truly understand this issue and to continue leading America and the world in the development of the technology necessary to reach the goals of the Paris Accord. I believe that there are likely more jobs to be had in the energy production technologies of tomorrow than there might be in those of yesterday.
I don’t believe that Ayn Rand was right about environmentalists either. They are neither haters of technology nor intellect. To be fair though, she didn’t have the benefit of 45 years of data. One would hope that as a true free market thinker she would have wanted to see our investments in both jobs and technology going towards the development of a clean energy future so that we could both prosper financially and provide for the future safety and soundness of the world’s environment.