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The second UN Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development—Rio + 20, for short—is underway in Brazil, and the main issue seems little to have changed since the first one twenty years ago.
The principal tension is between environmentalists, mainly from developed nations, who think human activity is leading to climate disaster, and the poorer nations who prize development above any environmental restrictions. So tense is the confrontation that the president of Brazil, the conference host, found it necessary to defend her country’s rapid economic progress by claiming that it was not actually harmful to the environment. The draft document with which the conference started has been so tilted in favor of development that the “green” organizations are already declaring the conference a total failure. The head of Greenpeace has vowed to renew his organization’s practice of civil disobedience in protest, and, in the style of the true fanatic, has declared himself ready to die for his cause.
In truth, Rio + 20 may not accomplish anything of importance. Diplomats will try to paper over the stalemate between opposing views with a lot of words and idyllic aspirations, but no one will really be fooled. Some major heads of state will not attend, including Obama and Cameron, perhaps for domestic political reasons, but also probably because they don’t want to waste their time. Maybe they don’t want to lend the prestige of their office to a flop.
Meanwhile, there have been some major changes in the real world that push hard against environmental orthodoxy. The most important has been the sudden availability of new supplies of gas and oil, two of the three major forms of fossil fuels condemned by the green movement (the other, of course, is coal). The newly employed system of hydraulic fracturing has brought enormous supplies of natural gas to market already, and is about to do the same for oil. The “peak oil” school, which has argued that we have passed the peak of oil discovery and are now in permanent decline, has been proved wrong. There is much more in North America than previously thought, a huge deposit off Brazil’s coast, one to dwarf them all in western Siberia, and likely more to come.
The ripple effects of new, relatively cheap energy are enormous, heralding a period of sustained economic growth worldwide, quite the opposite of the economic shrinking prescribed by the green movement. It has also become painfully apparent that the movement’s commitment to alternative energy—wind, solar, biofuel, and the like—has become economically unsustainable. All of them require government subsidies anyway, and the pressure from cheap, conventional alternatives (even if unconventionally obtained) has made the subsidies politically unpalatable. In the UK, for example, the governing coalition has been split over the issue, with the junior partner, the “greener” Liberal Democrats, shocked at the Tories’ proposal to phase out wind power subsidies, following a successful revolt against the towers by their own back-benchers.
And where stands “science” in all this? It has been the boast of environmental orthodoxy that “science” is a monolith “settled” on the coming crisis if humanity does not change its ways, or in the jargon, “reduce its carbon footprint.” In fact, there are thousands of well-credentialed scientists who dissent in whole or in part from the thesis that human activity is causing disastrous global warming. They note past ages that have been equally warm or warmer without human influence, to say nothing of repeating patterns of climate change like ice ages (though I’ve met one of James Hansen’s computer modelers who told me with sincere conviction that there would not be another ice age).
Dissenters point to many factors, from periodically oscillating ocean currents and varying solar output, to the inconsistency of measuring records and devices, to the lack of correlation between CO2 output and global temperatures (we’ve had a fifteen-year plateau in temperature change in spite of rising CO2 discharge). Whatever the truth of the competing claims, it’s perfectly clear that there is no scientific consensus. And there have been some celebrated deserters from the dominant orthodoxy, like Bjorn Lomborg who favors adaptation over an attempt to change the climate, and most recently James Lovelock, he of the “Gaia” hypothesis, who recanted his past climate pessimism rather dramatically.
The reaction of the environmental establishment to the presence of these dissenters and deserters has been rather nasty. Their papers have been denied publication in some journals, their grants and promotions have dried up, and they have been subjected to such ad hominem attacks as being aging and out-of-touch or worse, lackeys of the energy companies. At the extreme they have been excoriated as heretics, “climate deniers” akin to holocaust deniers and equally deserving of punishment.
It’s impossible to tell how this drama will play out. The energy revolution is a game-changer, surely, and political support for restrictive green policies and wasteful subsidies is declining. But the climate alarmists have not ceased their apocalyptic warnings, and have even stepped them up to meet these new challenge. No resolution of the conflict is in sight. But in spite of Rio + 20’s appearance of déjà vu, there are some major changes happening in the real world.
Thomas Sieger Derr is a member of the editorial board of First Things and the author of Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism.
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