A call to arms: an interview with John Carlisle

Published October 1, 2000

John Carlisle is director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at the National Center for Public Policy Research, headquartered in Washington, DC.

Randall: The National Center’s Global Warming Information Center has been covering the climate change debate for several years now. Who’s ahead these days: the skeptics or the alarmists?

Carlisle: The skeptics are doing quite well, in my opinion. They’ve been successful in rebutting some aspects of global warming theory, and at least raising questions among the public about others.

Some of the alarmists have all but admitted this. They complain that what they call a “fringe group” of global warming critics has received a disproportionate amount of media attention. They’re worried the public is being “misled” into believing that man-made global warming may be a myth. That suggests to me the skeptics have the upper hand right now.

Randall: Are the alarmists right to be concerned? Can you point to any examples of when the skeptics have received positive media coverage?

Carlisle: Last year, the National Center for Public Policy Research placed nearly 100 op-eds in newspapers across the country criticizing the unfounded claim that human-induced global warming is causing or will cause environmental disaster.

We, and other global warming skeptics, have been so successful at getting media coverage that the Knight-Ridder news service, which we use to distribute many of our op-eds, instituted a new policy this year forbidding the lone placement of articles critical of global warming theory. Now, Knight-Ridder will run anti-global warming articles only if they appear with a pro-global warming article.

I think that says a lot about how effective we’ve been in combating outlandish global warming claims.

Randall: It’s somewhat unusual that gloom-and-doom skeptics should be well-treated by the media. Any idea why global warming skeptics have fared so well?

Carlisle: I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, while the media is sympathetic to environmentalists, the media also likes a good fight. Without a doubt, global warming is one of the most bitterly contested political issues in the nation today, and it’s in the media’s interest to highlight the stark differences of opinion between the pro- and anti-global warming camps.

The second, and I believe more important, reason for the skeptics’ ability to earn good media coverage is that we are right, and we have the facts to back up our position.

Take as an example the often-repeated claim that rising sea levels are the result of human-induced warming. The sea level scare is often invoked by environmentalists trying to scare the public into supporting government policies that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and would be economically disastrous. An exhibit on global warming at the Smithsonian Museum even included a picture of the Atlantic Ocean lapping up against the Washington Monument.

That image is clearly intended to scare people. But there is absolutely no evidence that rising sea levels caused by a rapid melting of the polar glaciers caused by man-made warming will inundate seaboard cities over the next century.

The recently released National Assessment on global warming’s possible impact does warn the sea level could rise by as much as three feet over the next 100 years if steps aren’t taking to slow down global warming. But Dr. Fred Singer, who is a former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, says that claim isn’t supported by fact. At most, Dr. Singer says, sea level will rise seven inches in the next 100 years, and “global warming” will have nothing to do with it.

The oceans have been rising, it turns out, for 18,000 years–ever since the planet started to warm after the peak of the last ice age. The natural melting of a key Antarctic ice sheet explains why the ocean has continued to rise at an average rate of about seven inches per century–through periods of both global warming and global cooling. Singer says this gradual sea level rise will continue for another 7,000 years, or until another ice age reverses the trend.

My experience suggests the skeptics have been successful in rebutting the sea level scare, and others as well. Even the fundamental notion that temperature is rising has been challenged. NASA’s Tiros satellites show there has been no temperature increase in the last 20 years. If you don’t have rising temperatures, you don’t have global warming. And you can’t blame the increasing incidence of malaria or other tropical diseases on something that isn’t happening.

Randall: You seem optimistic that the skeptics will ultimately win the battle over global warming . . .

Carlisle: I’m optimistic that the science is on our side and, if we are persistent, we can rebut environmentalists’ unsupportable claims. But that does not mean the global warming skeptics will necessarily win.

When it comes to environment issues, environmentalists don’t have to be right to win the policy debate. They rely on emotion and people’s fears to push through laws and regulations that aren’t supported by sound science.

If you need proof, just look at EPA’s decade-long policy of forcing the use of MTBE gasoline–even though MTBE didn’t reduce air pollution, and even thought it did increase water pollution.

Randall: What environment issue do you believe poses the biggest challenge to champions of the free market?

Carlisle: Urban sprawl. More specifically, combating the proliferation of anti-growth measures that purport to reduce the ills of modern life: traffic congestion, unchecked development, and other problems associated with rapid economic development and urbanization.

It’s curious that environmentalists and no-growth advocates use the pejorative term “sprawl” to denote what until recently was considered a very positive social development: suburbanization.

For half a century, there was widespread agreement that it was socially beneficial that people could afford to move from crowded cities, often characterized by high crime, high taxes, and mediocre schools, to more rustic, pleasant suburbs with low crime, better schools, and a spacious home.

But the anti-sprawl crusade has really taken off because, at first glance, anti-sprawl proposals limiting development seem to address the public’s frustration with traffic congestion, and with what some perceive as chaotic development. The anti-sprawl movement is such a potent environment issue because it taps into other popular anti-growth attitudes that have little to do with the environment, especially the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) mentality.

Many people who have moved to the suburbs simply don’t want anybody else to enjoy what they’ve got, and they see anti-sprawl initiatives as a way to keep out the undesirable newcomers. What the urban sprawl debate really amounts to then is a debate between old sprawl and new sprawl.

The NIMBY mentality crosses political and geographic boundaries. Anti-sprawl sentiment is just as fervent in Republican Party strongholds, such as Loudoun County, Virginia, as it is in traditionally Democratic areas like Portland, Oregon.

Randall: So what do we do to combat anti-sprawl measures?

Carlisle: Emphasize that anti-sprawl measures make worse the problems they purport to address.

Wherever aggressive anti-sprawl policies have been implemented, such as in Portland, the quality of urban life has deteriorated dramatically. In Portland, traffic congestion is terrible and it’s getting worse because of the anti-sprawl policy of underfunding new road construction. That policy has also hurt Portland’s air quality. House prices in Portland are soaring while the typical lot size is shrinking, thanks to the anti-sprawl policy of forcing new development into existing urban areas.

The problem is that it takes time for the pernicious effects of anti-sprawl measures to become apparent. So it’s a real challenge to convince people of the problems associated with anti-sprawl initiatives when the initiatives sound reasonable and their negative effects are unseen.

The important thing for those of us who support sound science and common-sense approaches to environment issues, be it sprawl or global warming or anything else, is to keep publicizing the facts. When a community is considering anti-sprawl policies, we need to make sure they’re aware of Portland. When the global warming doomsayers talk about rising sea levels or invading malaria or hurricanes or whatever, we need to respond with science, not hype.

The environment is a tough arena, and we may not always win even with the best science on our side. But we’ll certainly never win if we don’t take up the battle.