It does seem hotter than it used to be, but maybe there is no such thing as global warming. Maybe the burning of fossil fuels at an ever greater rate over a few centuries by industrial nations (and in the future by industrializing nations) will have no lasting effect on the earth’s climate. Maybe the oceans won’t rise and drown us, the mosquitoes won’t migrate northward and infect us, the fields won’t be seared by drought and starve us. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that the last five years have been the hottest since humankind began to record average temperatures worldwide.
Most scientists who have studied the issue suspect that there is a problem, although they aren’t certain how serious it is or what its ultimate effects will be. Anyone with a sense of self-preservation would be prudent to err on the side of caution, especially when the oil industry and The Wall Street Journal ‘s editorial page loudly proclaim that there’s nothing to fret about. Actually, the oil barons and their serfs in the media and the think tanks are worried-not by global warming, of course, but by attempts to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.
In the compromised attempt at environmental responsibility in Kyoto earlier this month, the big energy corporations perceived a threat to the stability of the West, which they quite naturally associate with their own continued profitability, as well as to the growth of the less developed countries, which they consider synonymous with their continued exploitation of third world resources.
The rhetorical weapon against these threats, deployed and amplified at a cost of millions by the petroleum lobby, is a cry of conspiracy. Exactly whose conspiracy and to what purpose depends upon who is listening. Over here, on television, the oil-industry front group, misnamed the Global Climate Coalition, suggests a plot hatched by left-wingers to depress American production and consumption. Environmentalists are really just socialists in green drag, they mutter, camouflaging that nasty old urge to hobble the free market under a new banner of ecological stewardship.
But over there, in places like China and Brazil, the same voices warn of a scheme concocted by Western imperialists to thwart modernization and rising living standards. Environmentalists are really just capitalists wearing green ties, whose concern for the earth masks a darker desire to stifle competition. To take such theories seriously, it doesn’t help to know that the international insurance industry-not usually inclined to left-wing agitation-is as concerned as the Sierra Club about the effects of burning oil and coal, for purely self-interested reasons.
According to Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On , a recent book about global warming, “61 of the world’s largest insurance giants have signed a ‘Statement of Environmental Commitment,’ pledging themselves to incorporate considerations of climate impacts into their decisionmaking.” During the first five years of this decade, insurers paid $57 billion in covered losses due to floods, hurricanes and storms. That may or may not sound like a lot, but it is more than three times what they had paid out in the previous 10 years. The company actuaries apparently spotted a trend in these costly catastrophes.
Other major corporations with interests that diverge from those of oil and coal, including General Electric, AT&T, Honeywell, Maytag and Brooklyn Union Gas, have joined industry groups that promote reduction in combustion emissions and the promotion of alternative technologies. Does this mean that Jack Welch, the G.E. chief executive who has always sounded like a pretty orthodox Republican, is secretly some kind of radical? More likely it means that he and other major businessmen regard climate change as both a danger to future profits and an opportunity for Government subsidies. These hardheaded types emphatically do not believe that a gradual shift to alternative energy sources must lead to economic decline; with the Government’s help, in fact, they expect to make money from the transition.
We would be in better shape if that transition had begun 20 years ago, when oil prices were high enough to justify the expense of introducing solar and other new technologies. Serious investment in energy conservation, photovoltaic cells, cogeneration and hydrogen gas back then would have brought us closer to a sustainable future. At the time, however, those who advocated such changes were ridiculed as wild-eyed utopians. Oil prices dropped, and the habits of waste and pollution went unchanged.
Now, facing potential disaster, we demand frugality of the less developed countries, which use far less energy per capita than we do, and act surprised when they refuse. Why shouldn’t they imitate us, by chopping down their forests and choking their cities with smoke?
The answer is that we should help them to imitate us in more constructive ways, by financing the overdue changes in production and transportation that will foster prosperity without pollution, both here and there. A worldwide Marshall Plan for sustainable growth could make use of excess industrial capacity, create millions of new jobs and soften or even prevent the coming recession.
Yes, it’s a big idea, utopian even; and it would require a big outlay of money. But doing nothing will be far more expensive for everyone some day. Just ask those radicals at the insurance companies.