An article in Investor’s Business Daily

An article in Investor’s Business Daily is published about the PHE.

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August 6, 2001 A; Pg. 20

Worried About Global Warming? Just Remember Human Ingenuity

An old story is repeating itself in all the horror stories of global warming. Those predictions of melting ice caps, flooded cities, mass extinctions, monster storms and rampant tropical diseases reveal, once again, the brainless-human theory at work. This has long been a problem with the Jeremiahs of the environmental movement. They predict utter ruin for mankind and the planet if we don’t radically change our ways (which usually means giving up personal freedom). The disasters consistently fail to occur, not because humans are lucky but because they use their gray matter. They learn, they share their knowledge and they put it to work. They solve their resource problems without sinking into self-deprivation. The debate over climate change has a lot in common with past concerns over what’s often called the “carrying capacity” of the planet. The idea that the human species will inexorably grow beyond its food supply or other resources goes back to Thomas Malthus on the eve of the 19th century. Malthus, like so many after him, underestimated the effect of the organized brainpower that was just being unleashed in the Industrial Revolution. As it turned out, people learned how to feed a far larger population than that of Malthus’ time. Later, in 1865, economist William Stanley Jevons predicted Britain would run out of coal and slide into economic stagnation. ‘Demographic Transition’ In the 20th century, geologist King Hubbert and others saw the same gloomy future for oil. New Malthusians such as biologist Paul Ehrlich said population growth would soon lead to worldwide chaos. They all misread the signs, for much the same reason: They didn’t account for human ingenuity. They didn’t factor in new knowledge, new technology and (in the case of population) the ease with which human societies can adjust their behavior to new conditions. Now scientists talk of a “demographic transition,” with world population leveling off sometime in this century because of falling birthrates, rather than a “population bomb.” With global warming, climate scientists working under U.N. auspices have tried to work economics and other patterns of human behavior into their scenarios. The trouble: The scariest scenarios get the most attention. These are based on the most dubious assumptions. Jesse Ausubel, an environmental scientist with Rockefeller University in New York and a longtime student of climate change, says only a couple of these story lines “pass the common-sense test” – and these lead to the more benign climate forecasts. The others, he said, seem to assume a sudden breakdown of technological and scientific progress. “I can’t imagine, if the universities and labs of the world keep going, how some of the scenarios (the scientists) posit can happen.” Ausubel is not a global-warming skeptic. He accepts the view that temperatures have been rising, at least in part because of human activity. But he sees technology evolving to meet the challenge. One type of evolution, the “decarbonization” of energy, is about as old as the Industrial Revolution itself. This is the gradual replacement of high-carbon forms of fossil fuel – wood first, then coal – with those that have lower carbon ratios, such as oil and natural gas, and emit less carbon dioxide when burned. Natural gas, made up mostly of the lighest hydrocarbon, methane, emits two-thirds the CO2 of oil and a third the CO2 of coal. One expert on energy and the environment, Nebojsa Nakicenovic of Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, says the ratio of carbon emissions per unit of primary energy has fallen 0.3% a year since 1860. That’s on top of the world’s steadily higher energy efficiency, which, according to Nakicenovic, has led to a 1% yearly decrease in the energy required for each unit of economic output. Like China, Like America The shift toward natural gas in recent decades is one reason greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. increased at only half the rate of economic growth during the 1990s. The U.S., which still gets half of its electric power from coal-burning plants, can potentially shift a lot more of its energy load to gas. So can China, a coal-dependent country where shifting to gas would go far to solve severe air pollution problems. Decarbonization has come this far without the help of global treaties such as the Kyoto pact. It happened because industries needed more efficient sources of energy and the public wanted cleaner power. There’s every reason to think the same forces will keep this trend going, with more energy production shifting to natural gas. Count On People Further down that road is an economy based on hydrogen alone – methane stripped of its single carbon atom. Hydrogen is costly to produce, and doesn’t play much of a role outside certain exotic uses, such as powering spacecraft. If history is any guide, hydrogen should have its day. People will continue to demand cleaner and lighter fuel, and the technology of extracting hydrogen should advance to make the process cheaper. It’s impossible to measure the impact of technologies not yet known. But if the new century is to be anything like the last two, people a century hence will be using energy in new and vastly more efficient ways. With luck, the Kyoto process will be mostly forgotten, having petered out in the century before its command-and-control regime could do any economic damage. The global warming crisis also will be a distant memory. The doomsayers will have long since found new ways to feed the world’s worries. Some things never change.