Less Light

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The World Wildlife Fund urged people around the world to help save the planet by switching outdoor lighting off during Earth Hour on the evening of Saturday, March 28. That project is one more example of sermons and pressures from demonstrators and miscellaneous celebrities (and the Nobel Peace Prize committee) to proselytize their position on global warming. That is no way to illuminate complicated and largely technical issues.

I am no authority on those issues, but the economic principle of general interdependence leaves me ready to believe in some connection between human activity and climate change. Questions remain. How steep is the uptrend in global temperature, if any continues? What factors account for such a trend, and how important, relatively, is the human factor? By how much would a doubling (to about 0.08), say, of the CO2 percentage of the atmosphere raise global temperature? What would be the benefits as well as the costs, estimated in dollar terms, of a specific rise? If the costs should exceed the benefits, what remedies or adaptations are available? By how much would each remedy impair the growth of wealthy countries and the development of poor ones? By how much would non-participation by populous countries such as China and India dissipate expected net benefits? How might enforcement of proposed remedies impair personal and economic freedom? What problems other than climate change might have a better claim on financial and material resources? Is scientific controversy over such questions really settled, as often alleged?

Natural selection endowed human beings with a propensity to run and think with the herd, as was advantageous before and during the age of hunter-gatherer bands; and some of that propensity persists. Politicians, journalists, researchers seeking grants, corporate executives seeking subsidies and favorable publicity, and ordinary citizens counting themselves as informed and public-spirited have reason nowadays to climb aboard the bandwagon of opinion. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, persons unable to see and admire the emperor’s new clothes were stigmatized as intellectually and morally deficient. Wariness of such a stigma, as well as what Ayn Rand called the “argument from intimidation,” may be at work.

Al Gore and his disciples, including the celebrities and demonstrators, may conceivably be right. Like Marxians and Freudians, they can always claim evidence supporting their favorite doctrine. (Some ice is always melting somewhere, or unusual weather or coastal flooding occurring, or species disappearing from particular habitats.) Their posing of virtue against vice, their stigmatizing of questioners, sheds some light on the tactics of the alarmists but none on the substance of the issues.

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