Our Best Response to Climate Change: Economic Growth

President Clinton has said that climate change is “our overwhelming environmental challenge…the gathering crisis that requires worldwide action.” An objective look suggests that this kind of heated oratory is a far greater problem than global warming.

Over the past century, the average global temperature rose by about 1 degree Fahrenheit because of a complex potpourri of factors, one of which may have been increasing atmospheric levels of man-made carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases.” Some people believe that the world may warm another 3.5o F over the next hundred years. Combining the output of computer climate models with a healthy dose of conjecture, they claim that this postulated warming poses drastic dangers to human welfare. Even if we ignore the serious question of the credibility of those computer projections, and disregard the manifest inability of today’s climate models to relate rough estimates of global average temperature change into credible forecasts of regional climate change, alarm over climate change is still misplaced.

Let us consider the real climate-related problems that affect the world today. Billions of poor people who live in the third world are at the mercy of the elements today, just as most of mankind was until the 20th century. Heavier-than-usual monsoon rains in Bangladesh — or destructive storm-propelled ocean waves — can drown tens of thousands of people who have no way to evacuate their villages and move to higher ground. Millions of Africans live in societies where the effects of drought or flood, exacerbated by inadequate transportation problems, inefficient distribution systems or endemic political and military strife may turn failure of one crop into a major famine. In short, these people have a very serious problem in coping with the weather that already exists.

The situation is dramatically different in the economically developed world. Major storms and spells of extreme cold and heat may still cause temporary disruption, but the effect of weather-related calamities is far less serious than it was within living memory. Compared with its peak in the early 20th century, the US death rate from tornadoes in the 1990s was down by 94 percent, while the death rate from floods fell by 71 percent — and the death rate from hurricanes declined by an incredible 99 percent.

Most citizens of the western world live in insulated dwellings that are heated, cooled and designed to be weather resistant by modern technology. They have the personal mobility to escape harm when ever-improving weather forecasting and storm warning systems give advance notice of approaching danger. And modern agricultural technology, food storage capacity and rapid transportation provide alternative food supplies from distant areas if one region suffers a disaster. In short, rapid and extreme weather changes can be accommodated, thanks to a century of economic growth and technological advance. There is no reason to doubt our ability to adjust to climate change that may be caused by a hypothesized temperature increase of about three-to-four tenths of a degree per decade.

The real climate problem facing the world will be solved when the third world modernizes and industrializes, a process which historically has depended on considerably increasing the use of energy. Global warming alarmists advocate drastic restrictions on the use of energy, a guaranteed prescription for stifling economic growth. One can only suggest they are blinded by their own rhetoric.

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