Heartland President Addresses Common-Sense Environmentalism

May 29, 2004
Joseph L. Bast

I’d like to thank the Libertarian Party for inviting me to speak this morning. If it wasn’t for the Libertarian Party and the Society for Individual Liberty--now called the International Society for Individual Liberty--I would not have become a libertarian in 1977, or started The Heartland Institute in 1984. So I owe all of you--or at least the old-timers in the room--an enormous debt of gratitude.

Who’s an Environmentalist Now?

Twenty-five years ago, I was a long-haired hippy freak college student. I spent weeks at a time backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and in the Boundary Waters Area in Minnesota. I suppose I was into what is now called Deep Ecology. I edited the newsletter for the Chicago chapter of the Sierra Club--about which I will have more to say in a few minutes-- read of all Edward Abbey’s books, and subscribed to Earth First!

When Diane and I got married 23 years ago, we spent our honeymoon backpacking on the Ice Age Trail in central Wisconsin. (It was a crummy trail, I don’t recommend it.) We were vegetarians. (We eventually got over that.) We planted over 1,000 trees. We even built a geodesic dome in northern Wisconsin, complete with a composting toilet. (Don’t do that.)

But I was also a libertarian, and as the years passed and I got more involved in the libertarian movement, I was repeatedly faced with contradictions between what I read in the newsletters and fundraising letters of the environmental organizations I belonged to and what the scientists and economists I worked with said was the truth. I lived with that inconsistency for 8 years, until 1993, when I began what I expect will be a life-long research effort into environmental issues.

It started with a book project with an economist at Wheaton College named PJ Hill. It was titled Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism. Madison Books published it in 1994, followed by a second revised edition in 1996. You can buy a used copy by going on Amazon.com, or go on our Web site at www.heartland.org and download the entire thing in PDF format.

In 1997, The Heartland Institute launched Environment & Climate News, the only national monthly publication devoted to free-market environmentalism. It goes to every state and national elected official in the U.S., environment reporters at all the major daily newspapers, and several thousand subscribers, business and civic leaders, and Heartland members and allies. It has carried articles written by virtually every free-market environmentalist writer and thinker in the U.S., and a few from Europe.

In the last few years I’ve also written policy studies with distinguished scientists and economists on climate change and regulatory reform, and even testified before Congress on environmental issues.

What I Have Learned

It’s difficult to summarize 11 years of research and advocacy--you can rest assured, I’m not going to try to this morning--but I think I can summarize some of the most important facts and ideas I’ve stumbled across over the years.

For example, the world is getting cleaner and safer over time. Not just a little: dramatically. All six air pollutants tracked by the EPA--sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, lead, and particulate matter--have all fallen to levels below what they were back in the 1940s, when reliable measurements first started.

Other bad things, like dioxin, PCBs, and pesticides have dropped to levels so low we could not have even detected them a decade ago. All these compounds are now present in concentrations too small to be reliably associated with any health effects on humans. Cancer rates are falling and life expectancy continues to lengthen. We in the U.S. are in what Gregg Easterbrook calls the “post-pollution era.”

The fear that population growth would overwhelm the planet’s limited resources has now been completely debunked. According to the United Nation’s latest estimates, the world’s population which now stands at about 6.4 billion people, will probably stabilize around 2060 at around 9 billion, a third less than was it was predicted to rise to back in the 1970s and far below the planet’s so-called carrying capacity. Thanks to new technologies, sustaining that population may even require a smaller human footprint on the planet’s surface that is required now to support the current population.

A third truth I’ve discovered is that we will never run out of fossil fuels. According to Robert Bradley, president of the Institute for Energy Research, estimated global reserves of oil are sufficient to last 114 years; natural gas, 200 years; and coal, 1,884 years. What kind of person doesn’t think the human species will have figured out a way to switch over to fusion or some other yet-to-be-discovered fuel source 18 centuries from now? Someone who hasn’t read Ayn Rand or watched a Star Wars movie, I’ll bet.

And speaking of Carl Pope, Friday’s lunch speaker.... Mr. Pope quite commendably called for ending subsidies to the coal and oil industries as well as to the producers of “renewable” energies such as wind and solar. He said “I’ll bet on wind and solar against oil and nuclear on a level playing field any day.”

Well, he can place his bet, but he would lose, just like another anti-capitalist environmentalist named Paul Ehrlich lost a famous bet with the late great Julian Simon on whether we are running out of natural resources. You might recall that Ehrlich bet the price of natural resources would rise over time as they became more scarce, while Simon bet prices would fall. Ehrlich lost the bet, and his shirt ... and refused to enter into a new bet with Simon.

Pope would lose his bet because even with all subsidies removed and a surcharge imposed on fossil fuels for their supposed contribution to global warming--what Pope called a “level playing field”--two recent British studies--one by the Royal Academy of Engineers--found energy from fossil fuels costs half as much as energy from wind and solar. In fact, you can read about those studies in the May issue of Environment & Climate News.

But the news for Carl Pope is worse than that, because wind and solar power are variable--they don’t work when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine--so you need to build new backup power generators to kick in whenever they shut down ... and what do you think will power those generators? Yup, fossil fuel. Or maybe Pope would prefer nuclear power plants, which are also half as expensive as wind and solar power.

Global Warming

Mr. Pope also talked a little about global warming, which is the fourth thing I’ve learned something about. The audience nearly shouted him down when he claimed, during the question and answer session, that 95 percent of climatologists believe mankind is causing global warming. The audience was right: 17,000 scientists have signed the Oregon Institute petition saying there is no need to adopt policies to prevent or postpone climate change. The last survey of state climatologists in the U.S. found a large majority of them didn’t believe global warming was a threat.

Are all those scientists wrong? I don’t think so. The scientists who contributed to the prestigious reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it abundantly clear that we know too little about how the global climate works to predict future warming. You don’t hear much about that because the media only quotes the “summary for policymakers”--which was written by UN bureaucrats, not the actual authors of the reports. The scientists weren’t even asked to approve the summary ... but all their doubts and qualifiers are preserved in the full reports.

Both the former chairman of the IPCC, Bert Bolin, and the lead author of the science chapter of the 1995 report, Benjamin Santor, which did a lot to trigger the global warming scare, have both admitted (in Bolin’s words) the “science is not settled.”

Satellites recording the planet’s temperature for the past 24 years have found no warming trend, or at worst a warming of a tenth of one degree Celsius ... or about half a degree a century. You can go to NASA’s Web site and look it up yourself, or go to Heartland’s Web site at www.heartland.org and download a recent issue of Environment & Climate News. We print graphs in every issue showing the entire satellite database for the planet and separately for the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

The land-based temperature stations that alarmists and their allies in the media often cite can measure only about 20 percent of the planet’s surface, mostly in areas close to cities and airports where they are contaminated by urban heat. Rural temperature stations show no warming at all.

The global warming theory just doesn’t make sense:

  • Carbon dioxide is too small a player in atmosphere dynamics to cause the changes predicted by the alarmists. Water vapor is the major player, and the latest science says it is not amplifying the minute amount of warming caused by rising carbon dioxide levels.
  • Paleoclimatologists say the world entered ice ages at time when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were higher than those currently predicted for the next 100 years.
  • And even experts who think some global warming will take place have concluded it will have a net beneficial effect on animal and plant life, since it will occur mostly at night, during the winter, and in the coldest parts of the world.

The anti-capitalist, anti-technology wing of the environmental movement can’t let go of the global warming scare for the same reason is can’t give up the population explosion scare and the resource depletion scare. Do you know why? It’s because it relies on scare tactics to raise money. Did you know that Greenpeace alone mailed 43 million fundraising letters in 1990? At one time, environmental groups accounted for more than 10 percent of all the junk mail delivered in the country. I guess they’re not so opposed to landfills as they say they are.

You don’t think the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Environmental Defense, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the other left-wing environmental groups rely on fear to raise money? Check you mail box when you get home tonight.

Government Environmental Regulations Don’t Work

Another thing I’ve learned about environmentalism is that government programs intended to protect the environment just plain don’t. The cost of complying with command-and-control regulations is so great that the poverty they cause more than offsets any health benefits they might achieve.

We squander hundreds of billions of dollars a year on things that pose no threat to human health--such as chasing the last molecule of dioxin or arsenic--while allowing major cities such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to dump untreated sewage into Lake Michigan after every heavy rainstorm.

There’s a whole literature in economics, called public choice theory, that explains why government doesn’t work. Governments can’t tap the knowledge of millions of consumers and investors the way markets can with price systems and profit signals. Government rules and regulations aren’t self-enforcing, the way voluntary contracts are. Special interest groups are able to control and manipulate government agencies, while the general public is too uninformed and unmotivated to stop them.

The result is we have national, state, and local government environmental protection agencies spending billions of dollars and imposing regulations that cost hundreds of billions of dollars more, all of it based on flawed information, relying on levels of bureaucracy and reams of rules and regulations to try to prevent evasion and corruption, all subject to manipulation by polluters and rent-seekers. It’s no wonder this approach doesn’t work.

Despite government’s incompetence, nature is making a remarkable recovery in the U.S. Average annual wood growth in the U.S., for example, is an amazing three times what it was in 1920. Forested area is growing about 1 percent a year. Wildlife populations are recovering, with populations of bald eagles, alligators, white-tailed deer, elk, and wild turkeys all at record levels.

Government didn’t do this: private landowners did it, with private investment. Russia, Africa, and parts of Europe all have much more government than we do, but they haven’t seen anything like our recovery of clean air, clean water, and wildlife. In fact, some, like Russia, have seen almost unspeakable levels of environmental devastation. Here in the U.S., as Mary Ruwart often points out, government is often the biggest polluter--it is the most frequently cited party responsible for toxic waste sites, for example.

A Choice of Strategies

So what’s a libertarian environmentalist to do? Clyde Cleveland prefers not to debate the science, and focuses instead on how individual freedom and property rights do a better job protecting the environment than the liberal’s command-and-control agenda.

I agree with my New Age friend that it is important to stay positive and find common ground when possible. We don’t need any bad Karma. But when the other side is more than willing to lie and exaggerate to scare the public into embracing unnecessary regulations and massive spending programs, we cannot afford to concede the scientific debate to them.

And in fact, we’re winning this debate:

  • The wind has gone out of the sails of the global warming scare. With every year of satellite data showing no warming, and more and more scientists admitting the computer models are flawed, the claims and predictions of radical environmentalists look more and more foolish. I mean come on, Al Gore, global climatologist? The Day After Tomorrow as a “learning moment”? What have these guys got left?
  • Most Americans now know environmentalists are responsible for the forest fires that have destroyed millions of acres of forests in recent years--including much of Yellowstone Park--and thousands of homes and led to the needless and tragic deaths of firefighters. If the Sierra Club was really an environmental organization first, and not an anti-logging and anti-corporation organization first, these fires may not have happened.
  • Most Americans welcome new technologies that make food safer and more abundant, while requiring fewer pesticides and fewer acres of land to grow on, allowing more land to return to forests. Nearly all scientists agree biotechnology can be safe and effective. But the left wing of the environmental movement would rather have people in Africa starve to death than admit this. That’s really sick, isn’t it?
  • Most Americans now know anti-technology and anti-capitalist environmentalists are responsible for bans on the use of DDT in Africa, where it could have saved the lives of millions of victims of malaria. Most of them children. But no, the Sierra Club can’t endorse limited use of DDT, even though all the science now shows it poses no threat to human health. Admitting that might make people go back and read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that made it possible for the left-wing, anti-technology wing of the environmental movement to take over the whole environmental movement in the 1960s.

Speaking of shoddy research ... I’m reminded of Carl Pope’s comments about Bjorn Lomberg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. According to Pope it is, and I am quoting him, “the most unbelievably shoddy work I’ve ever read.” No, no, no! He must have been thinking of some other book, perhaps one of the hysterical tracts on population growth or natural resource depletion published by the Sierra Club, like The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, which predicted 60 million Americans would die of starvation in the 1980s.

Lomberg’s book is brilliant. It is a direct hit on the lying and exaggerating left-wing of the environmental movement. Go on the Internet and read the debate that ensued between Lomberg and his critics. You’ll see a lot of name calling and rhetoric, but when it comes to the science, the left hasn’t laid a hand on him.

The fact is, guys like Lomberg, Greg Easterbrook, Ronald Bailey, Jay Lehr, Pat Michaels, and others exposed the lies and exaggerations of the leftists in the environmental movement, helping to drive down their credibility and their membership numbers.

The new guys are free-market environmentalists. They’re the new wave in environmental protection, and they want to talk about science because they are tired of being lied to by the so-called mainstream environmental organizations. And they know asking the government to solve every environmental problem doesn’t work. They didn’t sleep through the 1980s and 1990s. They know free-market ideas are spreading across the world and changing the face of government here and all four corners of the planet.

Mr. Pope isn’t a free-market environmentalist. He’s still stuck in scare tactics and socialism ... oh, I’m sorry, I mean “the precautionary principle” and “public-private partnerships.” Right.

Mr. Pope said the free-market environmentalism movement “lacks integrity” because “corporations seem to be calling the tune.” Or so he’s heard, he told us. Well thanks for sharing the rumor, Carl.

As it happens, I know virtually every full-time writer in the free-market environmentalism movement--the folks at PERC, Heritage, Cato, CEI, the Fraser Institute, the American Council on Science and Health, National Center for Policy Analysis, Reason Foundation, and my own staff and senior fellows.

Without exception they are men and women of courage and integrity. And let me tell you something, you need to be courageous to challenge something as well-funded and intolerant of criticism as the national environmental movement.

The thousands of dollars the free-market environmentalism movement gets from corporations is a pittance compared to the billions of dollars--that’s billions with a b, folks--that left-wing environmental groups like the Sierra Club get from socialist philanthropies such as the Pew Trusts, MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, and Tides Foundation.

When Carl Pope said free-market environmentalists have an “integrity problem,” Diane turned to me and said, “that’s the pot calling the kettle black.” Indeed it was. Carl Pope is so lacking in integrity he had to lie during the question and answer period about how much of his organization’s resources are devoted to lobbying. It isn’t “less than half” as he claimed, otherwise half of his activity would qualify as tax-exempt educational efforts under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. In fact, the Sierra Club devotes only 6.2 percent of its budget to outdoor activities. The rest is all lobbying, litigation, and fundraising to support the same. You don’t have to trust me on this. They print it right on the back of the reply forms that come with each of their fundraising letters.

Is an organization that spends 94 percent of its budget on things other than outdoor activities really an “environmental organization”? You tell me.

A Libertarian Agenda

Let me say it plainly: The environmental movement has been taken over by anti-capitalist radicals who are using it to wage war against capitalism and campaign for liberal Democrats. Protecting the environment is now number three, or lower, on their list of priorities. As a result, they have squandered the tremendous grassroots support environmentalism once had.

Opinion polls show Americans put environmental protection at the bottom of their list of most important issues--8th out of 9 issues, according to the latest Earth Day Gallup poll, for example. Other surveys rank spokespersons for environmental groups down near lawyers and used car salesmen in terms of credibility.

This is both a problem and an opportunity for libertarians. It’s a problem, because a lot remains to be done to protect the environment in the U.S., and we need public interest and support to achieve it. For example:

  • We need to stop municipalities from polluting our lakes and waterways.
  • We need to end unconstitutional takings of private land under the Wetlands Act.
  • We need to adopt technologies that allow us to target the individual cars that are polluting the air and stop inconveniencing millions of other drivers who cars are now virtually pollution-free.
  • We need to reform the Endangered Species Act, which right now penalizes property owners whose good stewardship attracts eagles and other endangered and threatened species.
  • We need to repeal environmental regulations that kill more people than they save, such as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards on cars and trucks and the arsenic standards proposed by the Clinton Administration on the final day in was in office, and implemented by a weak-kneed Bush Administration.
  • We need to repeal state laws that require utilities to produce a certain percentage of power from renewable energy sources, since these laws increase everyone’s utility bills while having virtually no effect on air quality or the global climate.
  • We need to stop subsidizing oil, coal and nuclear power ... as well as wind, solar, ethanol, geothermal, and hydrogen power. Government is no good at picking winners, and nowhere in the Constitution does it say you and I have a right to cheap energy.
  • At the same time, though, we need to stop ratcheting down to technologically impossible levels the pollutants in factory and power plant emissions. Those levels are already below anything that can be justified by sound science or medical evidence. They are set that low because the left wants to stop the engines of capitalism. It has nothing to do with protecting the environment or human health.
  • And finally, we need to restore common law remedies to pollution by repealing the laws that effectively preempted them in the 1970s. I mentioned earlier how Milwaukee dumps untreated sewage into Lake Michigan after heavy rainfalls. Before the Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972, Illinois was successfully suing the city of Milwaukee on grounds that it was fouling Chicago’s water supply. Now, three decades later, the pollution continues. With all due respect to libertarians from Milwaukee who might be here today, I say “let’s repeal the damn law and just sue the bastards” and get the job done.

Conclusion

Listen. There is a debate taking place inside the environmental movement today between free-market environmentalists and left-wing environmentalists. The free-marketers are winning, policymakers are noticing and public policy is changing as a result.

Not surprisingly, the losers are crying “foul.” We can expect them to be loudest just before they fade away as political players. Don’t confuse noise with effectiveness.

My message to libertarians is this:

  • Don’t be shy about saying you are an environmentalist. Don’t let them call you an “anti-environmentalist” or a “right-wing environmentalist.” We are the mainstream now. We’re not knocking on the door asking for permission to join the movement; we’ve been here all along. They are the small alien band of ideologues who hijacked the movement in the 1960s, and we have put up with their anti-technology, anti-logging, anti-farming, anti-car, anti-capitalism, and anti-freedom rhetoric long enough. It’s time they left the room.
  • Tell people you are part of a new generation of environmentalists, a generation that relies on sound science instead of scare tactics and markets instead of government force.
  • Freedom is not incompatible with a healthy environment. Without freedom, a health environment cannot be protected.
  • And finally, if you know someone who is still a member of the Sierra Club, tell him tear up his membership card and become a member of The Heartland Institute instead.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago. His email address is jbast@heartland.org. This speech was delivered at the National Convention of the Libertarian Party on May 29, 2004 in Atlanta, Georgia.