Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Energy cutbacks for thee, conspicuous consumption for we, part 157 ...

Gregg Easterbrook fingers another global warming warrior demanding sharply reduced energy consumption, but only for you...

[Thomas] Friedman, Al Gore, James Hansen of NASA, and others present climate change as some kind of super-ultra emergency. Global warming is a problem, one that must be managed via greenhouse-gas restrictions and a weaning away from fossil fuels. But in a world of poverty, disease, dictatorships, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, lack of girls' education, and more than 1 billion people without cleaning drinking water or electricity — climate change barely makes the Problem Top 10.

Besides, the solution can't be a panicked pullback from the present economic system ... Economic growth is needed to allow the world to afford environmental protection...

Why does the cocktail-party circuit embrace claims about a pending climate doomsday? Partly owing to our nation's shaky grasp of science .... Another reason is the belief that only exaggerated cries of crisis engage the public's attention; but this makes greenhouse concern seem like just another wolf cry....

There also seems to be some kind of psychological compensation mechanism at work among corporate and Hollywood elites: that it's OK to be a runaway consumer yourself so long as you theatrically denounce consumption.

Friedman's book-talk schedule for the first month alone of Hot, Flat, and Crowded promotion requires jet aircraft trips that, the calculator at Terra Pass estimates, will generate about 3 tons of carbon dioxide—the same as driving a Hummer for almost half a year.

Friedman counsels, "[P]ersonally lead as environmentally sustainable a life as you can", but himself lives in a 11,400-square-foot mansion, whose carbon footprint may be visible from orbit.

Rather than address this straight on, he squirms to paint his lifestyle green: In Hot, Flat, and Crowded Friedman calls his house only "large" and says he and his wife bought the 7.5 acres "to prevent it from being redeveloped into a subdivision ...[We built] a large house on one end and turn[ed] the rest into a parklike greenspace."

Must depend on what the definition of like is, since this parklike space is hardly open to the public and appears disguised as a palatial lawn. Friedman claims his address "has become a refuge for deer, rabbits, birds, butterflies and a fox or two." He neglects to mention the nearby forest preserve — all homes in Friedman's neighborhood have deer and fox wandering their lawns.

Friedman can't bring himself to admit he is lord of a manor and racing through more resources in his daily life than 10,000 rural Africans.... [Slate]

Easterbrook is modest in his claim that global warming barely makes the global Problem Top 10 -- the Copenhagen Consensus put it at #14. He's also correct that the solution to global warming...

can't be a panicked pullback from the present economic system ... Economic growth is needed to allow the world to afford environmental protection
Remember that environmentalism is a luxury good. Friedman's next door forest preserve that supplies him with his "deer, rabbits, birds, butterflies" is in a rich man's neighborhood. If Tom was poor and needed meat to feed his family, he'd be burning those woods down to chase out the deer and rabbits to get a clear shot at them.

But Gregg doesn't mention the #1 reason for the cocktail party circuit embracing global warming doomsday: profit. "Global warming" is a classic example of an issue that politicians, pundits, and celebrities can free ride to personal profit because the solutions they propose have no cost to them.

First, whatever policy is adopted won't have visible results for decades, so nobody throwing out declarations of what "must be done" today has any fear of ever looking bad from being wrong, or proposing ideas that blow up. Thus there is no, zip, nada, accountability cost to being a global warming warrior.

Then there is no personal cost either. One person's contribution to global warming is so trivial that you don't really feel bad about the heating and a/c bills for your mansion, or for all your first-class air fares either -- and even other conservationists don't really hold them against you.

Compare that with, say, declaring you want to take the lead in bringing safe drinking water to one billion people for the first time. A truly worthy cause that could save lives in our own time as global warming warriors never will. But one which entails real, hard work working with others, like inept-to- corrupt local goverments ... producing visible success or failure ... with critics always second guessing you, "with all the money we've given you, why haven't you done more? You should be doing this..."

Hey, as a celebrity, pundit or politico, which crusade would you choose? Right!

So Friedman writes a tome demanding reduced energy consumption -- then jets off on his book tour to market it, burning fuel all the way to collect the profits that will add another wing to his mansion.

And Al Gore makes a speech urging the US free itself from fossil fuels in only ten years, saying his preferred substitute is ... windmills! He gets all the press he wants, and it's back to Hollywood to make another movie as the celebrated "truth telling" world-saving hero.

Now imagine if Al's speech had included this truth: "To replace the 50% of electricity in the power grid that is produced by coal, we must move rapidly to embrace the only available CO2-free substitute, nuclear power. This of course will mean the end of the coal industry as we know it, the end of the United Mine Workers union and the jobs of its members, and great hardship for states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania as they restructure their economies, but it is a price they must pay for the common good."

That would have been a truly inconvenient truth -- especially in an election year -- for the Democrats, the left and the greens ... inconvenient enough to seriously reduce Al's popularity in those circles and his future income from them ... so he said nothing of the kind.

While Tom Friedman's costly act to protect nature was to locate his mansion next to a forest preserve.

As long as the global warming isssue provides politicians and pundits a free lunch like this, you can expect to keep hearing a whole lot more about it.

(By the way, don't overlook Easterbrook's other incarnation as the world's most eclectic football columnist, TMQ.)