Bradley: Global Warming Repackages Old Fears

by David Bier on January 25, 2012

in Blog

In Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy, Institute for Energy Research’s Robert Bradley points out that the global warming scare is really a response to long-forgotten scares of old. The Malthusian theory that mankind would exhaust their resources was debunked repeatedly, energy prices fell and production increased dramatically, outpacing all projections.  Those who demanded the U.S. leave fossil fuels behind needed a new argument, and they found it with the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

Capitalism at Work was released in 2009

Measurements in 1957/58 first documented the increasing concentration of (CO2) in the atmosphere, portending a warming of the Earth’s surface by an enhanced greenhouse effect. This was a theoretical concern only. The worry of the 1970s was anthropogenic global cooling, a phenomenon linked to increasing sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from coal and oil combustion. Mankind’s energy emissions were culpable in either direction.

The global cooling trend that had begun in the 1940s changed into a warming trend by the late 1970s. As early as 1979, the Carter administration debated whether its proposed synthetic fuels program would increase global warming. Synfuel production and combustion was estimated to emit 40 percent more CO2 than directly burning coal to generate the same energy. Gus Speth, acting chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, and soon-to-be co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), warned Carter personally about the “very important and perhaps historic” scientific development.

When surface temperature records continued to show warming in the 1980s, the culprit from fossil fuel emissions shifted from SO2 (the cooling gas) to CO2 (the warming gas). Resources for the Future began targeting global warming as a potentially major issue in the early 1980s. By the end of the decade, the meteorological debate was ensconced in the public mind, thanks to highly publicized Senate hearings, featuring NASA scientist James Hansen, held by Al Gore during the heat wave and drought of the summer of 1988.

In 1992 John Holdren reoriented the “energy problem,” a sign of a paradigm under strain.[1] Holdren’s claim of rising energy costs in the face of contrary evidence now had a new component: a “social cost” that should be added to paid price. “‘Cost’ must be understood to include not only monetary but also environmental and sociopolitical components,” he stated. Holdren’s original position—“the most accessible and cheaply producible oil and gas hav[e] already been depleted”—now had reinforcement with the “social” costs of import dependence and “higher environmental costs of harvesting and using the more distributed fossil fuels.” Then came a third social cost—the costs of substitute nuclear and renewable energies “that avoid the environmental and political liabilities of fossil fuels but create others.”

Holdren’s nuanced “energy problem” was not home free. His social costs were shrinking. Air and water pollution were diminishing, and 1970s-style oil interruptions and shortages were nowhere. His ace in the hole, however, at least on paper, was anthropogenic climate change. This issue would bring the alarmists out in full force, just as other energy problems receded.

Depletionism, however, was hardly slain. M. King Hubbert died in 1989 at age 86, but the baton was in the hand of geologist Colin Campbell, who wrote in the same year, “Shortages [of crude oil] seem to be inevitable by the late 1990s, but knowledge of an impending supply shortfall may trigger an earlier price response.” Campbell, like Hubbert, would reset his global crude-oil peak as his prior prediction dates came and went.[2]

The redefined energy problem of the neo-Malthusians was a major retreat with negative implications for their credibility. “Having rightfully failed to convince people of the threat of exhaustion,” one leading energy economist concluded, “the resource pessimists may be seeking new rationales that appear more plausible.” To the pessimists, however, the real death knell of the carbon-based energy economy had finally surfaced—anthropogenic climate change from the emissions from the carbon-based energy economy. The human influence on climate could only be bad, not neutral or positive. To the true believers in a potential global warming apocalypse, the optimists, while right on some issues, now had a paradigm problem of their own.

For Enron, the climate-change issue was an opening that Ken Lay would seize upon to differentiate his “clean energy” company from the pack. Natural gas for coal … wind and solar generation … energy conservation services … emissions trading for greenhouse gases. It worked—to a point. Enron was building foreign power plants that were fired by oil, not natural gas. Solar, wind, and energy services were not profitable—but a quietly formed coal subsidiary was. It was a battle between perception and reality. Adam Smith and Samuel Smiles would have nodded and Ayn Rand smiled. Energy was no different from anything else. The political means of political capitalism offers transient opportunities, not assured profitability. Underlying consumer demand is primary. The creative destruction of the marketplace would have the last say for Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Enron.


[1] See Internet appendix 11.3 “Broader Energy Alarmism,” at

[2] Also see Internet appendix 11.4, “Contemporary Hubbert Analysis,” at


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