A essay from a reader

April 4, 2007

Global warming is no match for capitalism

By Jay Lehr ’57

The theory that human activities are adversely affecting the global climate has attracted many supporters, not because of the soundness of the science, which few people are competent to judge, but because acting to stop this supposed threat would benefit their particular interests.

Academics who can identify a link, however tenuous, between global warming and their research interest enjoy lucrative research grants. Former politicians find in global warming a way to still appear to be relevant. Europeans see in it a way to hobble an American economy that outperforms them by every measure. And liberals and leftists of various stripes see global warming as a justification to further tax and regulate industry and redistribute wealth.

Recent headlines announce that businesses and industries, too, have climbed aboard the global warming bandwagon. Like the others, they have discovered that going green brings in gold, whether by increasing their customer base, burdening would-be competitors with onerous regulations, or qualifying them for taxpayer subsidies.

It is almost pointless, given the current mass delusion, to question the science behind the global warming scare (but please indulge this scientist for just a moment or two). Natural variability easily explains the recent modest warming trend, and computer models are not up to the task for predicting our climate future. Carbon dioxide, under attack as the culprit behind global warming, is an important plant nutrient, and the increase in atmospheric CO2 content the past 50 years from about 270 parts per million (ppm) to 350 (ppm) had helped bring about increased yields of essentially all plant matter on earth either wild or cultivated.

Regardless of these scientific facts, our nation and all the world seem determined to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps even trillions of dollars, in a futile campaign to reduce CO2 emissions. In the end, this is not likely to cause even a measurable change in climate – even the computer models of the alarmists say as much – though the massive taxes and spending will impoverish billions of people in third world countries and millions even here in the United States.

Of concern to many thinking people is the effect this expensive and futile campaign will have on our economic liberties and the capitalist system that makes possible the prosperity that, ironically, makes spending on hypothetical and distant risks like global warming possible in the first place. Will public policies adopted in the name of preventing or slowing global warming seriously slow economic growth and undermine capitalist institutions in the way many liberals and leftists so fervently hope?

In short, no. This is so because, regardless of the various public and private, state or federal, or United Nations-imposed schemes to reduce CO2, they cannot succeed unless society is willing to forgo the economic growth we and most of the rest of the world strive for. That is not likely to happen. We can posture, sound green, even look green, but we will not go so far as to be green if doing so means real economic sacrifice.

True, the opacity of politics means we may waste a great deal of money with no real benefit to humanity. The same can be said, however, for many thousands of laws already on the books that penalize our economy with no visible benefits. It is true, even, of many capitalist ventures – Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” is not free, after all.

Through it all, capitalism survives.

There are always those who can turn laws into profits, such as lawyers, lobbyists, politicians and special interest groups ... all of whom can be found pushing hard these days for global warming legislation. This will always be so, because while capitalism is a marvelous economic system, it also creates opportunities for parasites (a strong word, but appropriate) to game the system for their own personal gain and to the detriment of the public.

At some point, those who hope that global warming will undermine our capitalist system will learn that it can only slow it temporarily until entrepreneurial business learn to turn public and government concern to their own advantage.

I recall that during the Korean War, in Korean prison camps, Turkish soldiers taken prisoner were difficult to control because they had strong bonds of brotherhood and discipline, making them march to their own chain of command rather than obey the prison guards. One by one the North Koreans would isolate Turkish leaders, but new leaders would spring up instantly, and they too would have to be isolated from the group. Eventually the entire cadre of Turkish soldiers were isolated ... together again!

This is now happening in our capitalist business and industrial society. One by one, business leaders are going green. Soon they all may be. But in the end, the result will not be a diminished capitalist system, but rather another example of a triumph of our economic system. Rest assured, capitalists will profit still, regardless of government restrictions. It has always been so.

The second law of thermo-dynamics dictates that every system naturally degrades from organization to disorganization without the addition of energy into the system. A free capitalist society will degrade to socialism without strong guardians ready to take up the gauntlet to preserve the system.

The defection of industry leaders into the global warming camp is not, as some have feared and others have hoped, a sign of this degradation into socialism. In truth, this is capitalism at work, though perhaps not at its best. We developed a radon-removal industry to answer the false radon scare, and an asbestos-removal industry to counter the false asbestos scare. Likewise we are now creating a global-warming industry, good at producing warm fuzzy feelings, but unlikely to solve a real problem.

Those who for so long have harbored the nefarious plot to convince our nation that man is responsible for altering the earth’s climate in order to undermine our continuing improvement in the human condition think they are winning handily, but in fact they are not and never will.

Jay Lehr ’57 is science director of The Heartland Institute and editor of several scientific reference works. 


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