Interviews April 2007

As the World Warms

Gregg Easterbrook talks about his cover story, "Global Warming: Who Loses—and Who Wins?," and the unexpected by-products of climate change.

Do any of the 11,000 or so candidates now vying for the presidential nomination seem to you to have a suitably ambitious energy platform?

Several have endorsed something similar to the McCain-Lieberman bill of two years ago, which would have set a very modest cap and trade system for power plants. I would say that McCain-Lieberman would be preferable to inaction, but it’s a very modest plan. Barack Obama has proposed to codify in legislation what President Bush spoke about as an executive order in his State of the Union address—that the fuel efficiency of new automobile models must be raised by four percent per year indefinitely. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you do the math it only takes 10 years to raise the fuel efficiency of new vehicles by a third. This would not only be terrific for reducing the rate of greenhouse gas accumulation but would also allow us to eliminate most of the oil we import from Persian Gulf dictatorships. So those are the two bills that seem most significant to me. But to my knowledge no major presidential candidate has yet proposed the sort of really sweeping ideas such as large-scale cooperation with China and India that we were just talking about.

In your book The Progress Paradox, you argue that one reason we tend to feel worse as a society even as our health and prosperity improve is that our cultural elites push bad news on us as a way of asserting their superiority. Some people make a similar critique of climate-change alarmists. Would you agree with them?

Well, there was a lot of bad news pushed by climate change alarmists. The obvious example is Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. That movie uses the worst-case scenario for everything—20-foot rise in sea levels for example, which is a crazy number. But suppose you took the real number from the National Academy of Sciences, a sea level rise of eight inches to three feet in the next century. The real number is plenty scary enough. You don’t need this silly Hollywood exaggeration. So a lot of elites have made doomsday claims about global warming destroying society and things like that, though the doomsday scenarios are statistically unlikely and statistically unlikely things don’t happen very much. But the likely and scientifically credible scenarios are plenty worrisome enough. And to the extent that the media has been pushing doomsday on this, one of my worries is that the press corps has totally shot its credibility in a classic crying wolf exercise all through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The big deal press corps—The New York Times, everybody—has repeatedly demonstrated total incomprehension of the relative risks of environmental issues. We’ve heard an awful lot about arsenic in drinking water and electromagnetic emissions from power lines and things that even in the worst case analysis are really marginal threats and affect only very small numbers of people and only very slightly raise risks. Since the press corps—and the worst is The New York Times—constantly demonstrates that they have no sense of relative proportion in what are serious risks and what are minor risks, well, now they’re saying, “OK, now there’s proof of global warming.” They’re right, but Americans aren’t paying attention. They’ve cried wolf so many times when there was no wolf that now, when there is a wolf, no one believes them.

So maybe alarmism like Al Gore’s is useful.

From the archives:

"Some Convenient Truths" (September 2006)
Runaway global warming looks all but unstoppable. Maybe that's because we haven't really tried to stop it. By Gregg Easterbrook

No, I think it backfires. If the problem is that we’ve had too much alarmism, the solution is not more alarmism. I think the solution in terms of getting the public interested is optimism on this issue. And I really wish any one of the major presidential candidates of either party would embrace the optimistic view. The optimistic view of global warming is this: It’s a serious problem. It’s a threat to our civilization. However, we’ve overcome problems like this before—the solution to environmental problems in the past has consistently turned out to be cheaper than expected and has worked faster than expected. We’re Americans, we’re used to solving technical problems. This is a technical problem. If we just get to work on this issue we’re going to get faster results than anybody expects and it’s going to cost less than people expect. That’s the optimistic interpretation of the issue and I’m waiting for the presidential candidate that would embrace that set of views.

The NFL says that the Super Bowl, which you recently attended as a columnist for, is now carbon-neutral. Did you notice?

There were no obvious emissions from the cheerleaders’ outfits, if that’s what you mean. We’re talking two and half weeks after the Super Bowl and I’m just getting over my Super Bowl cold from sitting in the rain for four hours. And of course sitting in the rain for four hours had no effect whatsoever on my 17-year-old son. But anyway, entrepreneurs are selling this carbon neutral concept and I just don’t have any way of knowing whether it’s true or not. There are companies now where if you’re worried about your carbon lifestyle you can go online and buy carbon credits that claim to reduce greenhouse emissions elsewhere and I simply don’t have anyway of judging whether that happened or didn’t happen. As for the Super Bowl, an awful lot of cars and planes and helicopters came, and the Thunderbirds, all six of them, shot overhead of the stadium just before kickoff with their afterburners on and there must have been a lot of carbon emissions associated with that.

I’d like to read you a quote. “Oh, so Mother Nature needs a favor? Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys. Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she’s losing. Well I say, hard cheese.” That’s from Montgomery Burns, on The Simpsons. I’m inclined to agree with him: don’t you think it’s about time Mother Nature got a taste of her own medicine?

Well, it’s a common fallacy in modern thought to romanticize the natural condition as one that’s benign and blissful. My 1994 book, A Moment on the Earth, has a couple of chapters on the fallacies of our romanticization of nature. Nature is physically beautiful. There are a lot of glorious places in the world that are wonderful to hike and just stand in awe. But from our standpoint and our ancestors’ standpoint, nature is a killing machine that we’ve spent thousands of years trying to defeat. Especially disease, which kills far more human beings than war and violence combined. But not just disease—natural disasters also have killed far more human beings than war and violence combined ever have. We’ve seen them recently in the Indonesian tsunami, but also all kinds of other natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions et cetera, and climate change itself—which wiped out most of the life on earth at the beginning of the most recent ice age.

From the archives:

"The Return of the Grizzly" (September 2000)
Parts of the West are braced for a second coming. By David Whitman

Nature is pretty deadly. And it’s completely ruthless about protecting itself. You may not like it, but what’s the standard behavior of animals in the natural condition? It’s kill or be killed. And animals kill each other completely ruthlessly without the slightest hesitation. People argue now about whether grizzly bears should be protected, even though grizzly bears are one of the few creatures that will attack a human being. I will tell you that nature would not hesitate for one second to pull the trigger on the hunting rifle and kill the grizzly bear. Mother Nature would consider it absurd that we debate whether we should do this. But, even if nature is dangerous to us, the found natural world is also the place of our existence. And the current climate of the earth is mainly favorable to the human enterprise. Why should we roll the dice with the climate when today the climate mainly favors us?

Presented by

Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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