Sunday, December 13, 2009

Don't confuse environmentalism with science

Published in The Tennessean, Sunday, December 13, 2009

Don't confuse environmentalism with science

by Richard J. Grant

Truth is not determined by majority vote. Any talk of a "consensus" in science is best not taken as the final word. As Somerset Maugham once put it, "If 40 million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie."

Climatology is a science, not to be confused with environmentalism. The heart of environmentalism is not to be found in the natural sciences. It is ideology and nothing more. That is why it ends in "-ism."

Environmentalism is itself not a monolith, but its dominant strand is distinctly statist in character. As such, its main nemesis is the science of economics, not climatology or any of the other natural sciences.

A sound understanding of economics is all that is needed to discredit the emerging interventionist social agenda of the environmental movement. The methods that they recommend cannot deliver the results that they promise.

It is common to hear accusations of "junk science" hurled against environmentalists, particularly those touting the dangers of climate change.

These accusations might be well taken and, if so, would be sufficient to derail the CO2 "Cap and Trade" juggernaut. But the real objective of the environmental movement appears to be in the social realm. That means the control of people, with environmental controls serving merely as the instrument.

We have had considerable domestic and international experience with governments that micromanage the lives of their residents. The more governments interfere in our lives, the more things go wrong. The people are poorer, less healthy, and less able to adapt to the vagaries of nature and of other men. If ever a science were settled, this would be it.

It should be obvious that each individual’s actions affect the rest of us to some greater or lesser extent. The same is true with respect to the environment around us. Complex interactions present us with great regularities, as well as many unexpected events. It has always been so; and we can expect it to remain so.

The environmental activists now meeting in Copenhagen need to mature a bit, and come to understand that we have less to fear from CO2 than from bad ideas.

Instead of sucking the oxygen out of the debate, they should admit that they know far less than their claims would suggest. They need to learn humility, an essential ingredient in anyone who would speak of science.

We need not con ourselves that we know enough to predict the Earth's temperature one hundred, or even twenty years from now. Even less certain should we be that we have the power to control it.

What we can control is our readiness to face whatever comes. But to follow the advice of the Copenhagen activists, or those who voted for the Waxman-Markey bill, is the path of fools.

It is the path of weakness and dissipation.

We know better, and we have done better. It is free societies that have done the best in meeting economic and environmental challenges. It is free societies that have led the way in developing new energy sources and making them incrementally more efficient.

If we, as consumers, really feel that burning coal for energy is too dirty, we don't even need to put a tax on it. All we need to do is stop wasting money on subsidies to low-yield, low-reliability sources, such as wind and solar, and remove the irrational and crushing regulatory burdens from more promising energy sources, such as nuclear. We don't need to subsidize any energy source.

The technology has already advanced sufficiently that private competition to serve customers would result in a systematic replacement of old energy sources by cheaper and cleaner sources.

If governments would stick to their job of protecting us from aggression, rather than blocking us from progress, we would now be wealthier, healthier, safer, and cleaner.

Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics at Lipscomb University and a scholar at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column will appear on Sundays. E-mail:

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2009