Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why Global Climate Change is Different

Steven Meyer


August 17, 2007

Scientists have been warning for more than two decades about the reality of global climate change and its impact on life on earth. If they are right, climate change already is having a profound effect on the basic aspects of life.

But scientists have made predictions before about the natural world and more often than not have been wrong. For example, Thomas Malthus, in his famous An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), predicted that the earth’s population would overwhelm the human capacity to grow food by the middle of the nineteenth century. Obviously, that did not happen. Malthus’s great failing was that he could not see beyond his own age and engaged in “static analysis.” He could not foresee the great technological advances in the two centuries that followed his work that would provide the earth with so much more food.

In 1972, The Club of Rome published a book titled Limits of Growth. To some extent it picked up on Malthus’s work but attempted to apply more rigorous methods to understanding the interaction among world population growth, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. Using computer modeling, the authors tried to guard against static analysis in arriving at their conclusions. They concluded that the rate of population growth would outstrip the rate that we used resources sometime in the 1990s. Again, clearly, that did not happen.

So why should we believe the scientists about global climate change? There are two basic reasons. First, unlike those earlier predictions, we are seeing climate change before our very eyes—right now! We can actually see the melting of the polar ice caps, the warming of the seas and the attendant dying of coral reefs, the rapidly increasing desertification in many places around the world, the rise in ambient air temperature, the change in ocean, rain, wind, and deforestation patterns. For these, as well as other variables, there is, right now, overwhelming empirical evidence.

Second, in the past, technologies were developed that mitigated the predictions of Malthus and The Club of Rome. And just as important, in most cases market forces were instrumental in making sure that the new technologies were implemented and used. Today, we already have much of the needed technology, and new technologies continue to be developed. But the market is not adopting enough of those technologies fast enough to reverse the causes of climate change. Indeed, in the globalizing world, market forces are encouraging the perpetuation of the very technologies that are contributing to climate change. To be sure, we are producing more environmentally friendly cars, planes, and other machines. But the world’s industrial capacity remains overwhelmingly based on carbon energy and older technologies. This is especially true in the developing world, particularly in China and India.

In the past, government incentives and tax policies were instrumental in encouraging the market to develop the technologies that helped to ensure that predictions such as those by Malthus and The Club of Rome would not become reality. Today, this is not happening. The lack of quality leadership, especially in the U.S., actually discourages the market and encourages static, short-term thinking and policy making. Lack of sound, forward-looking government policy, combined with a lackadaisical market, is ensuring the continuation of climate change and its devastating effects. For example, government subsidies for the production of ethanol complement rather than work to replace the multi-trillion dollar carbon-energy market. If this mentality is not reversed soon, the kinds of predictions made by Malthus and The Club of Rome may yet come true.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    The National Defense University
    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”