The perils of alarmism

Sept. 10, 2012
How does carbon dioxide, a compound essential to life, come to be treated as a dangerous pollutant?

How does carbon dioxide, a compound essential to life, come to be treated as a dangerous pollutant? How does hydraulic fracturing, a well-completion method used safely for 60 years, become controversial enough to impede the most promising energy-supply advances in at least a generation? How does a strategically important pipeline that would cross an aquifer, as most do, get stymied by fear about water supply?

One answer addresses all three questions: environmental alarmism. Pressure groups wanting to block oil and gas development know how to create and orchestrate fear. They succeed regularly. And they're just as regularly wrong.

So how did public opinion become so susceptible to politically strategic alarmism? Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor and author of the books The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, offers revealing answers in an article in the July-August 2012 edition of Foreign Affairs.

Club of Rome

In Lomborg's view, popular susceptibility to alarmism began with the breakout success of a small book published in 1972 called The Limits to Growth, product of the multinational, interdisciplinary Club of Rome. The group and its treatise promoted the grim view that economic growth would create mass deprivation by exhausting finite resources. The book predicted "exponential growth of population and capital followed by collapse." Technological improvements that might relieve a restraint to growth in one area, it said, could only push the system into other limits.

The gloomy outlook was altogether wrong. Natural resources haven't dwindled toward exhaustion since publication of The Limits to Growth. They've increased. Human welfare generally has improved. Lomborg calls the book "phenomenally wrong-headed." But it exerted great influence. "It helped set the terms of debate on crucial issues of economic, social, and particularly environmental policy, with malign effects that remain embedded in public consciousness four decades later," Lomborg writes.

One of those lingering effects is wariness of economic growth. Even if it hasn't led to calamity, movement toward prosperity remains suspect in popular belief and subject—at least in political discussions—to compromise if not real sacrifice. The other lingering effect is a reflex to embrace what Lomborg calls "worst-case environmental-disaster scenarios." The effects are legacies of a radical theory discredited by history. Yet they continue to make the public jumpy, ready to deal away economic growth, at least in the abstract, at any warning of risk. And groups opposed to economic growth, or to the physical consequences of economic activity, eagerly and effectively exploit that anxiety—in support of open-ended sacrifice aimed at lowering emissions of CO2, for example, and against work such as hydraulic fracturing and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Lombord offers a hint at what might break the alarmist stranglehold on public consciousness. Extremist positions often work against the values they purport to uphold.

"It is not too great an exaggeration to say that this one book helped send the world down a path of worrying obsessively about misguided remedies for minor problems while ignoring much greater concerns and sensible ways of dealing with them," he writes in the Foreign Affairs article. And in another place: "By implying that the problems the world faces are so great and so urgent that they can be dealt with only by massive immediate interventions and sacrifices—which are usually politically impossible and hence never put into practice—environmental alarmism actually squelches debate over the more realistic interventions that could make a major difference."

What's constructive

Environmental alarmism thus exaggerates the risks of CO2, hydraulic fracturing, and pipelines while responsible environmentalism would concern itself with perils such as poverty, the cultural dislocations of a drilling boom, and, perhaps, the safety of highways sure to bear sharply increased truck traffic if pipelines aren't built.

Environmentalism can be constructive. Alarmist environmentalism most often is not. A public able to see the difference can inhabit a world accommodating both the spread of prosperity and protection of the environment. Indeed, a public so discerning deserves such a world.