Sunday, April 6, 2008

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley recently warned that failure to take action on global warming could mean the extinction of the human race. Over the last few years, we’ve been repeatedly warned we are in the midst of a climate crisis that threatens our survival. Al Gore calls it a “planetary emergency.”

We might take this concern more seriously if the doom-mongering wing of the environmental movement weren’t burdened by a long history of false prophecies.

In the mid- to late-1960s, the leading environmental concern was overpopulation. The 1967 book “Famine 1975!” warned “by 1975 a disaster of unprecedented magnitude will face the world … famines will ravage the undeveloped nations … this is the greatest problem facing mankind.” A sober review of the book in the scholarly journal Science characterized the prediction of mass starvation as “self-evident,” argued that technological solutions were “unrealistic,” and concluded that catastrophe was unavoidable. The reviewer concluded “all responsible investigators agree that the tragedy will occur.”

More widely read was Paul Ehrlich’s shrill screed, “The Population Bomb” (1968). Mr. Ehrlich began with the infamous words “the battle to feed all of humanity is over,” and claimed that “in the 1970s … hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” “We must have population control,” Mr. Ehrlich argued, because it is the “only answer.”

Mr. Ehrlich followed “The Population Bomb” in 1969 with publication of the essay, “Eco-Catastrophe,” in which he predicted the Green Revolution would fail and that the “ignorance” of the Cornucopian economists would be exposed. By 1980, environmental degradation would wipe out all “important animal life” in the world’s oceans, people would choke to death from air pollution by the hundreds of thousands, and life expectancy in the United States would fall to 42 years. “Western society,” Mr. Ehrlich proclaimed, “is in the process of completing the rape and murder of the planet for economic gain.”

In 1975, the news media informed us that a new Ice Age was imminent. An article in the Chicago Tribune titled “B-r-r-r-r: New Ice Age on way soon?” noted “It’s getting colder.” The Tribune interpreted a number of ordinary weather events “as evidence that a significant shift in climate is taking place — a shift that could be the forerunner of an Ice Age.” The New York Times chimed in, warning their readers that “a major cooling may be ahead.” Famed science reporter Walter Sullivan announced “the world’s climate is changing … a new ice age is on the way.”

Within 10 years, the imminent calamity of global cooling was replaced by global warming. And the mass famines predicted by Paul Ehrlich and others never happened.

From 1970 through 2000, the world’s population grew from 3.7 billion to 6.1 billion. But the food supply grew faster. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita food increased by 15 percent. The problem today is not of famine but of too much food. Obesity is even becoming a problem in the developing world.

Better science and more reasonable voices preceded Mr. Ehrlich, but were ignored by a media fascinated with frenetic alarmism.

In 1960, ecologist Edward Deevey calmly predicted that the rapid growth in world population would be temporary. He was right. The growth rate of the world population peaked in the early 1960s and was already in decline when Mr. Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb” in 1968. Europe and Japan now have negative population growth, and the birthrate in developing countries is falling rapidly as these regions undergo a demographic transition.

It is apparent that world population will stabilize at 9 billion to 10 billion around the middle of this century.

None of the environmental catastrophes Mr. Ehrlich predicted occurred. Since 1970, the six principal air pollutants tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency have fallen significantly, even while U.S. population and energy use have grown. In 1990, Mr. Ehrlich’s own ignorance was exposed when he lost a wager over the price of commodities to Cornucopian economist Julian Simon.

And the Green Revolution was a success. It has been estimated that the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, singlehandedly saved the lives of a billion people. Higher crop yields from improved grain varieties also helped preserve the environment by limiting the need to convert undeveloped areas to arable land.

History repeats itself. So, please excuse my skepticism when you claim global warming means the end of the world is nigh. I have heard it all before.

David Deming is a geologist, an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis and associate professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.

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