Climate of Fear VII.

Back in 1792, the Marquis de Condorcet was in hiding from some French Revolutionaries who wanted to cut off his head. To while away the time in a garret, he wrote an essay predicting the continual improvement of the human situation. Science would tell us more about the world, while education would make that knowledge widely understood and the emancipation of women would enrich the stock of human capital. A week later he was dead, but his philosophical essay continued to inspire optimists. In 1798, Thomas Malthus approached the issue of human progress from the hard-headed perspective of mathematics. Human population would always tend to run ahead of food supply. Most people would find their standard of living forced down to the bare subsistence level. Two intelligent people approaching the same question from two different perspectives arrived at radically different answers.[1]

Accept that global warming is real. What’s the worst that could happen? As was the case with Condorcet and Malthus, the answer depends on who is doing the imagining. Diane Ackerman, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (New York: Norton, 2014) is “enormously hopeful.” For one thing, humans have been remodeling the planet almost since they climbed down out of the trees. It has been one long Lowe’s project: dams, dikes, canals, logging, and moving life-forms (bacteria, plants, animals, people) from continent to continent. All of this even before the Industrial Age began. Human beings do stupid things, or smart things that turn out to have awkward, unforeseen consequences. However, human beings are also endlessly inventive when solving problems. Florida may become uninhabitable as the seas rise, but Florida only became inhabitable for large numbers of people in the first place through the invention of air-conditioning and insecticide. People will accommodate to a changing environment; new technologies will emerge to deal with new demands.[2]

Both Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future (New York: Columbia UP, 2014) and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014) are less sanguine.[3] Klein argues that “we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.” Where will this lead? Naomi Klein at least, urges a “Great Transition” away from capitalism that will solve not merely the climate crisis, but will also resolve a host of other social ills.

Nathaniel Rich, “Books: Feeling Our Rising Temperature,” NYT, 23 September 2014, D5.


So who is correct? Goldilocks. It’s likely to be worse than Ackerman expects, especially if you live in one of the fragile zones of the Earth. Human adaptivity will deal with the changes better than Klein, Oreskes, and Conway fear.

What is the most prudent response? Do what we can to limit the changes that will come, while creating an environment to stimulate adaptive responses and new technologies. Carbon taxes would be a good place to start. Raise the price of carbon. Let consumers and entrepreneurs—not governments—figure out how to respond.

[1] Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich continued this debate in the late 20th Century.

[2] My own hope is to grow rich by building a marina and resort on Baffin Island.

[3] I suppose you could call them “Naomi-sayers.” Ha! Is joke.


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