Ryan Young

Post image for Earth Day: The Greener Side of Growth

It may not be a popular fact, but a fact it is: the environment is getting cleaner, and it has since about the mid-20th century. The question is, what caused this improvement? How can we keep it going? Over at Topix.com, my colleague Geoffrey McLatchey and I argue that the best answer for both questions is wealth creation:

Economic growth and environmental quality are not opposing values. They go hand-in-hand. Something happens to a country when its per capita GDP reaches about $5,000 (U.S. per capita GDP is about $48,000). At that point, families are certainly not rich. But they don’t have to worry as much about where their next meal will come from. They can afford to begin to take care of other needs, such as building sewage systems and other pollution-reducing infrastructure. Instead of using wood for heating and cooking, people can turn to more efficient fossil fuels, which means less deforestation. Farmers can afford to adopt modern techniques that produce more food with less land, leaving more left over for wildlife.

That’s the good news. The even better news is that greater progress is on the horizon. The number of people living in absolute poverty halved between 1990 and 2010, and the number continues to dwindle. Remarkably, this is happening even as global population increases. As more countries pass the $5,000-per capita benchmark, ecosystems around the world will benefit.

Read the whole thing here. Even if people do concede to the data and admit that the world’s environmental situation isn’t doom-and-gloom, they often give credit to the EPA. A glance at my recent EPA report card will hopefully disabuse people of that notion. Innovation, not regulation, is what will keep the environment healthy. That’s the lesson people should take from Earth Day.

The goal of the 10:10 Project is to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent per year. Sony, which supported the 10:10 Project until a promotional video featuring exploding global warming skeptics offended a lot of people, has its own project called the “Road to Zero.”

While they mean well, supporters of the two initiatives seem to have forgotten Zeno’s paradox. Suppose that people are particularly zealous about their carbon-cutting and cut 50 percent per year, not 10 percent. Not only does that make the math easier, it biases the numbers against the argument I’m making.

Their emissions would go from 1 to 1/2 to 1/4 to 1/18 to 1/16, and so on. Emissions move asymptotically towards zero, which is a fancy way of saying they never actually get there.

As with most campaigns of this sort, 10:10 and Road to Zero may succeed in making people feel good about themselves. And there is some value in that. But the schemes, especially taken together, are too clever by half. Or, more likely, the opposite.

Japan’s Environment Ministry is encouraging its citizens to go to bed an hour earlier at night, and get up an hour earlier in the morning.

There is much wisdom in the old “early to bed, early to rise” adage. But that’s not what the Environment Ministry has in mind. They see going to bed early as a way to fight global warming.

By saving an hour’s worth of lighting and other electricity use every day, the Morning Challenge campaign says the average household can emit 85 fewer kilograms of carbon per year. Staying up late ensures mankind’s doom.

It is astounding that the Japanese regulators think that your bedtime is government business. Then again, this is the same country that has a legally allowable maximum waistline.

School Choice: Mankind’s Doom

by Ryan Young on February 1, 2010

in Blog

Caleb Brown points to a study that finds a novel reason to oppose school choice: global warming. In a competitive educational marketplace, it is likely that fewer children would attend schools in their own neighborhood. That would mean less busing, and more driving in cars to get children to school. School choice, then, would contribute to global warming.

The study does not appear to be satire.

One of history’s great debates is whether we will die in fire or ice. The proportion of the populace crying each variety of wolf varies according to the fashion of the time.

Vikings newly introduced to Christianity, taking note of their surroundings, sided with ice. They conceived of hell as a cold place, filled with blue devils.

A few centuries later, Dante wrote his Divine Comedy. Its famous first canticle, “Inferno,” had a very different, much hotter picture of hell.

Fast forward to our time. In the 1970s, ice was the fashion once again. Grant-seeking scientists and credulous journalists warned of imminently fatal global cooling. A new ice age was dawning.

In this decade, fire is all the rage again. Many of those same grant-seeking scientists and credulous journalists have changed their minds. Now global warming will cause catastrophe. And these 690 other things (!).

The particular charges change from generation to generation. But the verdict is always the same: apocalypse. A common thread runs from the Book of Revelations to Nostradamus to Rachel Carson to James Hansen. That threat is imminent doom. As one doomsayer after another is proven wrong, the litany gets quite tiresome.

The Earth has cooled over the last decade; will we die in ice?

But it’s gotten warmer over the last century. Fire, then.

But it’s cooler than it was in the High Medieval period. Ice.

But warmer than during the Dark Ages. Fire.

And so on.

Global temperatures will continue to change, ebb, and flow, whether or not we emit large amounts of CO2, and whether or not we care. Yet many people view climate change as a horror. It must be stopped at any cost.

There is a reason why global warming alarmists don’t like to use the phrase “global warming.” They prefer “climate change.” The prospect of a world two degrees warmer than the one we live in now isn’t very scary. But the notion of climate change does scare people. Framing it that way has been devastatingly effective in getting publicity and funding. It’s good for business.

Today’s dominant mindset that any climate change at all is bad is puzzling. It implicitly assumes that today’s climate is the best of all possible climates. Maybe that’s true. But maybe it isn’t. The trouble is that few climate activists seem to have had that thought. The idea of change is so scary that nobody has the presence of mind to ask if that’s a problem or not.

I give them the counsel of Marcus Aurelius, who lived during the (rather warm) second century AD: “To be in the process of change is not an evil, any more than to be the product of change is a good.”*

No, change simply is. It is a part of life. Let us observe, adapt, and live in peace with each other and the world that we all call home. I’m not scared. You shouldn’t be, either.

*Meditations, IV.42; trans. Maxwell Staniforth.

Today’s New York Times has a classic dog-bites-man story. The green energy sector is shedding jobs, despite being given billions of taxpayers’ dollars by Presidents Bush and Obama.

As so often happens, regulators’ efforts to change people’s behaviors aren’t working as hoped.

To paraphrase Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren’s work on ethanol subsidies: if it’s commercially viable, then it doesn’t need any subsidies. If it isn’t, no amount of subsidy will make it so.

Lomborg Strikes Again

by Ryan Young on November 2, 2009

in Blog

Some people want to cure malaria by reducing carbon emissions. Others want to cure it with mosquito nets, better health care and sanitation. Which is a more effective use of our limited resources? The answer is important; malaria kills about one million people every year. Getting it wrong costs lives.

According to Bjørn Lomborg, “For the money it takes to save one life with carbon cuts, smarter policies could save 78,000 lives. ”

Let’s pursue those smarter policies, then.

A quick point to add to Fran Smith’s excellent post on Sweden’s experiment in labeling food and menus for their carbon footprints: don’t read too much into the labels.

The New York Times notes that “the emissions impact of, say, a carrot, can vary by a factor of 10, depending how and where it is grown.” With that much imprecision built in, if the labels change consumer behavior as much as supporters hope, it’s entirely possible that eco-concsious diets could result in more carbon emissions, not less. A classic case of leaping before you look.

This new religion is a piece of work. It comes complete with a deity (Gaia), clergy (activists), indulgences (carbon credits), and now, dietary restrictions.

Keeping Priorities Straight

by Ryan Young on October 23, 2009

in Blog

Bjørn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus, brings some much-needed common sense to the global warming debate. Reporting from Vanuatu, he finds that many of the locals haven’t even heard of global warming.

Torethy Frank is one of them. She has other priorities, such as escaping crushing poverty: “Torethy and her family of six live in a small house made of concrete and brick with no running water. As a toilet, they use a hole dug in the ground. They have no shower and there is no fixed electricity supply.”

You can see why the two degrees of projected warming over the next century are not at the top of her “problems to solve” list. I would argue that ending global poverty should be a little higher on ours. Certainly higher than global warming.

On November 4, California regulators may vote to ban big-screen televisions. The large sets use more energy than they would prefer.

Commissioner Julia Levin claims the ban “will actually save consumers money and help the California economy grow and create new clean, sustainable jobs.”

It is easy to imagine the ban costing tv manufacturing jobs; less so the jobs that would take their place.

Fortunately, the ban isn’t terribly enforceable. Consumers can just drive to Arizona, Nevada, or Oregon to get the kind of tv they want.

A final point on semantics: what does “sustainable” even mean, anyway? It is a meaningless buzz term, right up there with “synergy” and “paradigm.” This decade’s equivalent of “social justice.”

If anything, use of the word “sustainable” signals that a person knows not of what they speak. If you’re unable to defend a proposal on the merits, just use fashionable buzz words that poll well.