A Free-Market Energy Blog

False Alarm: Today–and Back in the 1970s

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 15, 2022

“There’s a long and sad history of efforts by industries and interest groups to reshape the discussion of climate science and undercut the overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gases produced by humans are leading us to global catastrophe.”

– John Schwartz, “How the Riot Ties In with Climate Disinformation.” New York Times, January 13, 2021.

With the election and transfer of power to Biden/Harris, it is climate alarmism galore. The Gods gave us the Pandemic, the landed US hurricanes, and the California wildfires for a reason–to win an election. And the Powers in the sky gave us the Capital riot to help cement the policy momentum of the ‘existential threat.’

Back to the Times‘ Schwartz. “For those of us who cover climate change for a living,” he states,

the blatant lies about election fraud that fed the mob [of January 6, 2021] felt very familiar. A big part of our job is dealing with the disinformation that people and institutions spread to muddy the waters about climate change.

Lies? Disinformation? An optimistic view of future climate has a strong basis in settled science (CO2 fertilization, modest primary warming), just as climate pessimistic has a more speculative basis (as in debated feedback effects to elevate the initial warming).

A Half-century of Exaggeration, Doom

The poor track record of critics of the high-energy, carbon-based economy inspires scepticism towards their sharp turns toward climate alarmism.  Some glaring predictive errors by well-known critics have required substantial, albeit reluctant, revision.[1]

After stating in the 1970s (along with John Holdren) that “it is questionable whether potential resources can be converted into available supplies at economic costs society can pay,” Paul Ehrlich admitted in the 1990s that, “the prices of more raw materials are indeed dropping than are rising.”[2] 

Ehrlich’s conclusion in the 1970s that Los Angeles’s smog problem was incompatible with continued reliance on the internal combustion engine was corrected by his acknowledgement in the 1990s of the “salient success story” of more cars and less pollution.[3] 

Ehrlich’s original concern about global cooling and global warming led to a self-correction that global warming was the apparent problem.[4]

Paul Ehrlich’s protégé, John Holdren, an environmental scientist and energy policy specialist at Harvard University, once feared that the potential death toll from global warming could reach a billion people by 2020.[5]  Yet Holdren recently opined: “That the impacts of global climate disruption may not become the dominant sources of environmental harm to humans for yet a few more decades cannot be a great consolation.”[6] 

In other signs of retreat or, at least, mixed thoughts, Ehrlich and Holdren have respectively warned against rash policy action based on “worst-case prognoses”[7] and acknowledged affordable energy as “the lifeblood of the industrial societies and a prerequisite for the economic development of the others.”[8]  All of these revisions have been toward energy and climate realism, the battle cry of many of us.

Some have suggested that yesterday’s alarmists were really “whistle-blowers” whose “important early warnings … averted … disasters.”[9]  But society has been fortunate to have tuned out alarmism. 

Fearing coal depletion, William Stanley Jevons warned the UK in 1865, “To allow commerce to proceed until the course of civilization is weakened and overturned is like killing the goose to get the golden egg.”[10]  As it turned out, domestic coal supplies were not depleting but expanding for Jevons lifetime and well thereafter before political problems sent the industry in decline. But the UK enjoyed a half century of economic growth that a Bureau of Coal Supply and Allocation could have arrested.

What if the alarms of Paul Ehrlich or John Holdren had inspired a policy of oil rationing and a phase out of the internal combustion engine in the 1970s?  What if power plant construction in the US had been ordered to “cease immediately … except in special circumstances” as recommended by Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman in 1971?[11]   What if the dream of Holdren and Ehrlich in 1973—“a massive campaign must be launched to . . . de-develop the United States” [12]—had been enacted to control energy usage?  A major decarbonisation plan—all in the name of avoiding catastrophic climate change—poses the same risk for the UK and EU today.

[1] For a critical review of the energy pronouncements of Paul Ehrlich, the father of the modern energy Malthusians, see Robert Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (Washington: American Legislative Exchange Council, 2000), pp. 126-49.  A critical review of the energy alarms of Paul Holdren can be found at http://www.cei.org/pdf/3539.pdf.

[2] Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability, pp. 130-34.

[3] Ibid., p. 136.

[4] Ibid., pp. 144-45.

[5] “As University of California physicist John Holdren has said, it is possible that carbon dioxide-induced famines could kill as many as a billion people before the year 2020.”  Paul Ehrlich, The Machinery of Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), p. 274.

[6] John Holdren, “Memorandum to the President: The Energy-Climate Challenge,” in Donald Kennedy and John Riggs, eds., U.S. Policy and the Global Environment: Memos to the President (Washington: The Aspen Institute, 2000), p. 23.

[7] Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability, pp. 118-19.

[8] John Holdren, “Meeting the Energy Challenge,” Science, February 9, 2001, p. 945.

[9] Richard Norgaard, “Optimists, Pessimists, and Science,” BioScience, March 2002, p. 288.  Also see Michael Grubb, “Relying on Manna from Heaven?” Science,  294 (2001), pp. 1285-87.

[10] Jevons, William Stanley, The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines (London: Macmillan and Company, 1865), p. 345.

[11] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor (Rivercity, MA: Rivercity Press, 1971, 1975), p. 72.

[12] John Holdren, Anne Ehrlich, and Paul Ehrlich, Human Ecology:  Problems and Solutions (San Francisco; W.H. Freeman and Company, 1973), p. 279.

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