A Journal for Western Man





Britain's Stern Review on Global Warming:

It Could Be Environmentalism's Swan Song

Dr. George Reisman

Issue LXXIX- November 19, 2006



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To the accompaniment of much fanfare and hoopla, the British government has released Sir Nicholas Stern's Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a report that it commissioned but that it labels "independent."

The report is a rehash of now standard environmentalist claims concerning alleged disasters that await the world if it continues with its wicked ways of fossil fuel consumption: the disappearance of islands beneath the sea, the flooding of coastal cities, more severe droughts and hurricanes, famines, disease, the displacement of tens of millions of people from their traditional homelands — it's all regurgitated in the report.

A couple of times, however, the report provides a hint of something even much worse:

Under a BAU [business as usual] scenario, the stock of greenhouse gases could more than treble by the end of the century, giving at least a 50% risk of exceeding 5°C global average temperature change during the following decades. This would take humans into unknown territory. An illustration of the scale of such an increase is that we are now only around 5°C warmer than in the last ice age. (p. ix of the Executive Summary.)

It remains unclear whether warming could initiate a self-perpetuating effect that would lead to a much larger temperature rise or even runaway warming…. (p. 10 of the full report, the Stern Review.)

The frightening allusions to "unknown territory" and "runaway warming" come very close to conjuring up images of hellfire and brimstone as the fate of the world if it does not take Sir Nicholas's Report to heart and repent of its ways. But Sir Nicholas never actually does make this threat. He leaves it merely to implication.

Perhaps if it were made, it would be easier for people to identify the environmentalists' fears for the empty bugaboo that they are and dismiss them. Their response would need be only that if economic progress and the enjoyment of its fruits will consume the world in flames, and thus that living like human beings means we really will all go to hell, then so be it. Better to live as human beings now, while we can, than throw it away for the sake of descendants living as pre-industrial wretches later on. (But, of course, we will never have to make such a choice, for reasons that will become clear shortly.)

Surprisingly, the actual negative consequences Sir Nicholas alleges that will occur from global warming are extremely tame, at least in comparison with hellfire. In his "Summary of Conclusions," he writes: 

Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don't act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.

Sir Nicholas's use of the words "don't act" is very misleading. What he is urging when he speaks of "action" is a mass of laws and decrees — i.e., government action. This government action will forcibly prevent hundreds of millions, indeed, billions of individual human beings from engaging in their personal and business private action — that is, from acting in ways that they judge to serve their own self-interests. Thus, what he is actually urging is not action, but government action intended to stop private action.

Furthermore, he does not explain why he believes that global warming means the end of all subsequent economic progress, though that is implied in the words "now and forever." He compares the dangers of global warming to "those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century," (ibid.) yet seems to forget the stupendous economic progress that followed them.

According to Sir Nicholas, what we must do to avoid the loss of up to 20% of annual GDP, is ultimately to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions "more than 80% below the absolute level of current annual emissions." (p. xi of the Executive Summary. My italics.) Lest one think that such drastic reduction lies only in the very remote future, Sir Nicholas also declares,

By 2050, global emissions would need to be around 25% below current levels. These cuts will have to be made in the context of a world economy in 2050 that may be 3–4 times larger than today - so emissions per unit of GDP would need to be just one quarter of current levels by 2050. (Ibid.)

In appraising Sir Nicholas's views, it should be kept in mind that our ability to produce, now and for many years to come, vitally depends on the use of fossil fuels. These fuels are the source of most of our electric power and thus of our ability to use machinery. They propel our trucks, trains, ships, and planes. And, of course, their use entails the emission of carbon dioxide. Thus, it would seem that Sir Nicholas's means of preventing even a 20% loss of GDP would entail a far greater loss of GDP than 20%.

It follows that if it is output that concerns us, we would be better off simply accepting global warming, if that is what is in store, than attempting to avoid it in the way Sir Nicholas prescribes. We will certainly not produce 3–4 times the output in 2050 with 25% less carbon dioxide emission. Far more likely, if such a reduction is forced upon us, we will produce substantially less output, despite the probable existence of a substantially larger population by then.

Sir Nicholas appears to be as naïve in his estimate of the cost of replacing today's technologies of fuel and power as he is in estimating the effect of their loss. Without evidence of any kind, he claims that while the cost of "inaction" is as much as 20% of annual global GDP, "the costs of action — reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year."

Thus his program is designed to appear as really quite a bargain: the world's governments will appropriate an additional mere 1% of global GDP each year in order to prevent their citizens from wantonly destroying as much as 20% of annual global GDP by foolishly pursuing their own self-interests. And it turns out that, in Sir Nicholas's view, even this 1% is far more than is required by the governments for the actual development of new technologies.

In his chapter titled, "Accelerating Technological Innovation," he writes that "Global public energy R&D funding should double, to around $20 billion, for the development of a diverse portfolio of technologies." (p. 347 of the Stern Review.) Twenty billion dollars are a mere one-twentieth of one percent of the world's current annual GDP of roughly $40 trillion. That's supposed to be all that it takes to develop the technologies that will enable the world to eventually reduce carbon emissions by 80% from today's levels.

How easy and simple it is all supposed to be, if only we will do as we are told, and get started doing so right away. All we have to do is sit back and leave the direction of our lives in the hands of the government. It will solve the problem of changing the global technology of energy production with the same success that the Soviets and the British Laborites pursued their respective varieties of socialism and with the same success that our own government has conducted its wars on poverty, drugs, and terror, and in Vietnam and Iraq. Did I say, "success"?

Sir Nicholas's Review is characterized by an apparent belief in a kind of magical power of words to create and control reality. Thus, the actual fact, as reported in The New York Times, is that "About one large coal-burning plant is being commissioned a week, mostly in China." In the same report, The Times points out that "A typical new coal-fired power plant, [is] one of the largest sources of emissions, [and] is expected to operate for many decades." Totally ignoring these facts, Sir Nicholas believes he has said something meaningful and significant when he writes,

Developing countries are already taking significant action to decouple their economic growth from the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, China has adopted very ambitious domestic goals to reduce energy used for each unit of GDP by 20% from 2006–2010 and to promote the use of renewable energy. India has created an Integrated Energy Policy for the same period that includes measures to expand access to cleaner energy for poor people and to increase energy efficiency. (p. xxiv of Executive Summary.)

To say the least, this represents the use of a mere statements of intent concerning action in the future in an effort to override the diametrically opposite character of China's and India's actual actions in the present, and in the foreseeable future as well if these countries are to achieve further substantial economic development.

Another illustration of the attempt to employ words as though their use could control reality, occurs in Sir Nicholas's discussion of "learning and economies of scale" in connection with low-carbon technologies. He notes that "The cost of technologies tends to fall over time, because of learning and economies of scale," and appears to conclude from this that low-carbon technologies can therefore eventually be as efficient as the high-carbon technologies they are supposed to replace when the latter are forcibly curtailed. He writes, "There have been major advances in the efficiency of fossil-fuel use; similar progress can also be expected for low-carbon technologies as the state of knowledge progresses." (Stern Review, p. 225.) It apparently does not occur to him that there may be some necessary order of sequence involved and that the use of high-carbon technologies is the necessary foundation for the possible later adoption of low-carbon technologies.

Presumably, he does not believe that in the period 1750–1950, industrialization could have proceeded on the foundation of low-carbon technologies. For example, before such technology as that of atomic power could be developed, generations of industrial progress had to take place on a foundation of fossil fuels. And this was equally true for the technology of wind turbines and solar power. The ability to produce the materials, components, and equipment required by these low-carbon technologies rests on the existence of previously established, highly developed carbon-based technologies. Further substantial economic development on the same foundation is required for the further development of low-carbon technologies.

Wherever the use of high-carbon technology is cheaper than that of low-carbon technology, forcibly curtailing its use implies the forcible reduction of the physical volume of production in the economic system, including its ability to produce further capital goods. Thus, forcibly curtailing the use of carbon-based technology cuts the ground from beneath the development of future low-carbon technology. It aborts the development of the necessary industrial base. (For elaboration of these points, see my Capitalism, pp. 178–179, 212, 622–642.)

Sir Nicholas's and the rest of the environmental movement's hostility to carbon technology, is ultimately contrary to purpose not only insofar as it prevents the development of the low-carbon technologies they claim to favor, but also in that it simultaneously, and more fundamentally, operates to deprive the world of the ability to counteract destructive climate change, such as global warming.

Whether or not they are aware of it, in attempting to combat alleged global warming, Sir Nicholas, and the rest of the environmentalists, are urging a policy of deliberate counteractive global climate change by the world's governments. They want the world's governments to change the world's climate from the path that they believe it is otherwise destined to take. They want the world's governments to make the earth's climate cooler than they believe it will otherwise be as the next two centuries or more unfold. But their policy of climate control is the most stupid one imaginable. It's more stupid than a modern-day equivalent of a savage's attempting to control nature by the sacrifice of his goat.

The reason it's more stupid, much more stupid, is that the goat that they want to sacrifice is most of modern industrial civilization — the part that depends on the 80% of the carbon emissions they want to eliminate, and which will not be replaced through any magical power of words to create and control reality, however much they may believe in that power. It is precisely modern industrial civilization and its further expansion and intensification that is mankind's means of coping with all aspects of nature, including, if it should ever actually be necessary, the ability to control the earth's climate, whether to cool it down or to warm it up.

If mankind ever really finds it necessary to control the earth's climate, whether to prevent global warming or, as is in fact probably more likely, a new ice age, its ability to do so will depend on the power of its economic system. An economic system with the ability to provide such things as massive lasers, fleets of rocket ships carrying cargoes of various chemicals, equipment, and materials for deployment in outer space, with the ability to create major chemical reactions here on Earth, too, if necessary — such an economic system will have far more ability to make possible any necessary change in the Earth's climate. That is the kind of economic system we could reasonably expect to have in coming generations, if it is not prevented from coming into existence by policies hostile to economic progress, notably those urged by Sir Nicholas and the environmental movement.

What Sir Nicholas and the rest of the environmental movement offer is merely the destruction of much of our existing means of coping with nature and the aborting of the development of new and additional means. To the extent that their program is enacted, it will serve to prevent effectively dealing with global warming if that should ever actually be necessary.

A major word of caution is necessary here. The above discussion implies that the use of modern technology to control climate is infinitely more reasonable than the virtually insane policy of attempting to control climate by means of destroying modern technology. The word of caution is that in the hands of government, a policy of climate control based on the use modern technology could be almost as dangerous as the policy of government climate control by means of the destruction of modern technology.

In fact, a possible outcome of today's intellectual chaos on the subjects of environment and government is a combination of major destruction of our economic system resulting from policies based on hostility to carbon technology and climate damage caused by governmental efforts to control climate through the use of modern technology. It's not impossible that what we might end up with is an economic system largely destroyed by environmentalist policies plus the start of a new ice age resulting from government efforts to counteract global warming through the use of technologically inspired countermeasures.

The only safe response to global warming, if that in fact is what is unfolding, or to global freezing, when that develops, as it inevitably will, is the maximum degree of individual freedom. (For elaboration and proof of this proposition, see Capitalism, pp. 88–90.)

Any serious consideration of the proposals made in the Stern Review for radically reducing carbon technology and the accompanying calls for immediacy in enacting them makes clear in a further way how utterly impractical the environmentalist program for controlling global warming actually is. The fundamental impracticality of the program, of course, lies in its utterly destructive character. But in addition to that, the fact that people are not prepared easily or quickly to make a massive sacrifice of their self-interests dooms the enactment of the program.

Even if, in utter contradiction of the truth, the program were sound, it would simply not be possible to enact it in time to satisfy the environmentalists that the level of carbon buildup they fear will not occur. In other words, the world is quickly moving past the window of opportunity for enacting the environmentalists' program for controlling global warming. (Concerning this point, see pp. xi-xii of the Executive Summary, especially Figure 3 on p. xii.) The implication is that either they will have to find another issue or different means for addressing the issue.

The only different means, however, are technological in character. Environmentalism thus stands a very strong chance of ultimately reverting to the more traditional socialism of massive government construction and engineering projects. Its future may well lie with what is coming to be called "geo-engineering." We shall see.

George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. He is also the translator of Mises's Epistemological Problems of Economics (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1960).

This article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author's web site www.capitalism.net is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved.

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