Rush to Fight Global Warming Misses Adaptation Opportunities

Published July 1, 2007

This article is the first in a two-part series exploring how industry and society at large might respond to predicted climate change.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has set out to pass a greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade bill as a proposed remedy to global warming. The measure’s Senate prospects are uncertain. Some states and localities are likewise embracing initiatives related to climate change.

The mainstream media assert there is a “scientific consensus” regarding manmade global warming, and they are pushing for wholesale changes in the energy marketplace in a supposedly carbon-constrained world.

These are heady times for energy and climate Malthusians, who argue that our modern energy practices are poised to cause massive, imminent global catastrophe.

Predictions Not New

This is exactly the issue that made headlines across America almost 20 years ago. In the hot, dry summer of 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that heat waves and droughts were related to an enhanced greenhouse effect.

Two years before that, in July 1986, Al Gore stated, “There is no longer any significant disagreement in the scientific community that the greenhouse effect is real and already occurring.”

Back then the United States and the world were burning, respectively, 72 quadrillion and 200 quadrillion BTUs (quads) of fossil fuels a year. Several thousand quads of oil, gas, and coal consumption later, with global usage now running about 400 quads a year, fossil fuels account for more than 80 percent of U.S. and world energy consumption.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency, oil, gas, and coal will represent more than 85 percent of the worldwide energy market for decades to come.

On the question of energy, consumers are speaking with a mighty voice. They like the affordability and reliability of conventional energies.

No Reason for Guilt

How should America’s oil and gas industry respond to the fever-pitch issue of global climate change? Obviously, every company and employee has much at stake, given that hydrocarbons are in the crosshairs of climate-related public policy proposals.

But the question is not merely one of business impact–there also is a human curiosity about what a former vice president calls “a planetary emergency.” Is there really a carbon-based energy problem that cannot be solved by the growing wealth of a free society? There also is a personal curiosity: Should those in the oil and gas industry feel guilty about their work?

Addressing these questions will help us answer the bottom-line question: How should the industry position itself in the debate?

Malthusian Mindset

To get to the answer, the Malthusian mindset that has polluted much framing and study of the issues must be discounted. Climate science has become as much political science as physical science, because so many practitioners start with the premise that nature is optimal and that human influence–toward warming or cooling–cannot be beneficial.

This is a peculiar mindset that ignores the benefits of industrialism for everyone, including the scientists themselves. But only this bias can explain why every perceived negative of the human influence on climate is paraded, and why there is a lack of interest in studying, much less reporting, the positives of the human influence on climate (such as the carbon dioxide fertilization effect, warmer nights, etc.).

Thus the first step for each of us is to break through the Malthusian fog and understand the science and economics surrounding this debate. We must share this understanding with our children, relatives, and friends.

We must make sure our schools fairly present the issues. The local newspapers must approach the issue squarely and fairly. Forums must be provided for an open, fair airing of climate change issues.

Possible Backlash

True understanding is necessary to ascertain how the politics of the issue will turn out. If the problem is real and the solutions are appropriate, mandatory carbon constraints will enjoy continued support.

But if the “planetary emergency” is exaggerated and proposed solutions are not up to the task (remember that most environmental activists are at war with nuclear and hydroelectric power as well), there will be a public backlash against carbon rationing. Political momentum will turn against climate alarmism and its legislative and regulatory progeny.

Carbon may be priced, but it will find its political ceiling at a level far too “low” to make a climatic impact under anyone’s math. It will be little more than regulation for its own sake–and very wasteful, distasteful regulation at that. It will be a “hassle factor” for industry, but one that will become less and less defensible so long as reason trumps emotion in the debate.

Thus, the real issue will shift from forced carbon rationing to adaptation to climate change and weather events, for whatever reason and in whatever direction the events may occur. At that point, the Malthusians will have to acquiesce in the rationality–indeed the morality–of modern, prosperous living, complete with a non-politicized energy sector.

Robert L. Bradley Jr. ([email protected]) is president of the Institute for Energy Research ( and the author of five books on energy, including Climate Alarmism Reconsidered and Energy: The Master Resource. Bradley is writing a multi-volume energy history that climaxes with the rise and fall of the late Kenneth L. Lay and Enron, where he worked for 16 years.