By James Pethokoukis
Norman Borlaug and William Vogt are the two leads in Charles C. Mann’s 2018 book, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet. Nobel laureate Borlaug was the central figure in the Green Revolution that raised grain harvests globally, saving maybe a billion lives. (Mann sums up his vision this way: “Innovate! Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win!”) Vogt set in motion what became the modern environmentalism, including the concepts of Earth having a “carrying capacity.” (Mann sums up his vision this way: “Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose!”)
The highlighted media — both mainstream and social media— reaction to the new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change leans Vogtian rather than Borlaugian. Now that’s partially, if not mainly, the result of a half century of Vogt-influenced environmental activists embracing what’s been called “apocalyptic environmentalism.” Things are bad, they’re going to get much worse, and we’d better be prepared to live differently in the future. When I’m in a snarky mood, I’ll call this Thunbergism and include my favorite quote from Greta Thunberg: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
I would rather see everybody win — and that includes the part of humanity that lives in far different conditions than the residents of OECD countries. Some three billion of us cannot, for instance, afford a healthy diet, according to Our World in Data. While the world needs clean energy, it also needs more energy, as well as technology to help counter the potential tail risks from a warming climate. I think this view eventually wins out, but we’ve wasted a lot of time focusing on extreme risk aversion and the scarcity narrative created by Vogt and others such as Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich.
Yes, the UN report is concerning to say the least. As the WSJ reports: “The report highlights human responsibility for record heat waves, droughts, more intense storms and other extreme weather events seen around the world in recent years. It also sharpens estimates of how sensitive the climate is to rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — a key metric in forecasting the rise of global temperatures in the years ahead.”
Then again, I recall someone saying that if it came between choosing coal-fired energy on one hand and cheap energy on the other, America’s skies would turn black before we turned down the AC. Thankfully, that’s not the choice we probably have to make. Among the stories I have open right now on my PC among my numerous tabs is this one from David Roberts at Vox, “Geothermal energy is poised for a big breakout.” I love the kicker: “With an inexhaustible, dispatchable, flexible renewable energy source so close to breaking through, the vision of a fully renewably powered world seems less and less utopian, more and more tantalizingly within reach.” Then there’s this one from The Economist: “The race to build a commercial fusion reactor hots up,” which explores the promise of both fusion and advanced fission. Policymakers need to think about the R&D investment and deregulatory actions that might prove helpful in aiding these and other emerging technologies. Innovate! Innovate! Only in that way can everyone win!