Today is World Environment Day, and it’s a good day to celebrate past achievements and point out the errors of the doomsayers who’ve long been over-represented in the environment debate. The central message of the doomsday school is simple:
we can’t protect the environment unless we are willing to accept a radical reduction in our standard of living.
Although they agree on this point, they disagree radically about its implications, dividing into two opposed groups
* Deep Greens who say that we should radically reduce our standard of living and protect the environment
* Dark Browns who say that we should do nothing to protect the environment because to do so will wreck our standards of living
Experience since the first World Environment Day in 1972 suggests that neither of these positions is true.
On the one hand, claims that we are bound to run out of resources, made most vigorously by the Club of Rome in the 1970s, have repeatedly been refuted by experience. Most natural resources have actually become cheaper, but even in cases where prices have risen, such as that of oil, the economic impact has been marginal, relative to the long-run trend of increasing income. The recent increase in the price of oil, for example, might, if sustained, reduce income by about 1 per cent, or around 4 months of economic growth.
At this point, doomsayers usually point to a growing world population and the increased demands on resources that will arise when people in China and India aspire to Western living standards. The tone isn’t quite as apocalyptic as in the 1970s, when the Paddock brothers were advocating letting Bangladesh starve, but the analysis often hasn’t caught up with the data. Population growth peaked (in absolute terms – the percentage growth rate has been declining for decades) around 1990. Current UN estimates have a population of 9 billion in 2050, but if the declining fertility in wealthy countries is followed elsewhere this will probably turn out to be an overestimate.
In most respects, economic growth is consistent with improvements in the environment rather than degradation. Wealthy countries are unwilling to put up with polluted air and water and have the technical and scientific resources to fix them.
On the other hand, the Brown doomsayers have an equally bad record. Time after time, they’ve opposed environmental improvements as too costly, repeatedly overestimating the costs and underestimating the benefits. The debate over CFCs and the ozone layer provides a good example, since it was one of the first issues to be addressed on a global scale. The doomsayers repeatedly attacked both the science behind the ban on CFCs and the economics of the policy, claiming it would cause massive economic damage. In reality, even without taking account of health benefits, it seems likely that the CFC ban yielded positive net economic benefits. Most of the leading participants in this debate (Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas, Julian Simon, Tom DeLay, the Marshall and Oregon Institutes) are familiar to anyone who’s followed the global warming debate, except that Bjorn Lomborg has taken Simon’s place.
All of this leads up to the one big remaining problem that of global warming (and the inter-related debate about Peak Oil). The doomsayers on both sides are out in force on this one. For the Deep Greens, it’s the one remaining chance to achieve support for radical change. For the Dark Browns, this is the real fight, for which the CFC debate was just a rehearsal.
All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most. Quite possibly, as in previous cases, this wll turn out to be an overestimate.
fn1. Both groups engage in a fair bit of wishful thinking about their position, the Greens arguing that we’ll all be happier in the long run and the Browns claiming that the environmental problems will solve themselves if we ignore them.