THE AGE OF GLOBAL WARMING: A HISTORY
By Rupert Darwall
Quartet, $45, 448 pages
Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Rupert Darwall’s “The Age of Global Warming: A History,” goes into great detail explaining the forces that shape the debate over climate change. Importantly, as the subtitle suggests, Mr. Darwall puts the issue into historical perspective, examining the roots of the environmental movement as well as the political machinations that drive the policy process. Mr. Darwall’s contribution to the discussion is timely, with the publication coinciding with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report Summary for Policymakers. While the U.N. report claims new levels of certainty of a global warming crisis, Mr. Darwall’s history offers a palliative counterpoise to some of the more extreme assertions about global warming.
Mr. Darwall traces the climate change debate back to the intellectual tradition of two prominent English scholars, Thomas Malthus and William Stanley Jevons, who feared the demand for resources would ultimately outstrip supply. Malthus is well known for his views of population expanding exponentially while food supplies expand arithmetically, with the imbalance eventually dooming society. The economist Jevons focused on the finite nature of resources. In particular, he examined coal, which fueled the British Empire. With a finite supply of coal, he argued, new technology would increase the consumption of coal and threaten the viability of the economy over the long run.
Such thinking spawned an anti-growth movement that ultimately fed into the modern environmental movement. One twist along the way, prompted by early environmentalist Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” was to add a focus on pollution, a byproduct of growth and consumption. Mr. Darwall also credits the influence of Barbara Ward, both in the United Kingdom and United States, as the impetus behind the concept of “sustainable development.” Economic growth needed to be managed and tempered in order to minimize the potential negative impacts.
Mr. Darwall also reviews the history of science behind the global warming debate, relying on the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, when assessing the science of climate change. For Popper, science advanced through falsification; theories can be tested and refuted, eventually moving closer toward the truth. However, Mr. Darwall points out that global warming science does not necessarily work that way, because we are making predictions about a future, which is unknowable and therefore cannot be refuted, at least in the present.
Mr. Darwall demonstrates how the departure from Popper’s notion of falsification has altered the science of global warming. Rather than refuting theories, much of climate science relies on statistical modeling, with the models constantly being tweaked when reality proves to be different than the model. As a result, scientific “consensus” has become an important tool in climate science, with theories approved not by refutation, but through judgment by top scientists. This fundamentally alters the scientific method and feeds into the needs of politicians, who are more interested in action than in getting the science right. Mr. Darwall reminds of us of President Eisenhower’s warning against the potentially dangerous rule by experts: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.” Very prescient remarks when examining the bureaucratic dominance of the U.N.’s IPCC in climate science.
Above all, politics has driven much of the debate over global warming, and Mr. Darwall provides great insights into the interplay between economics, science, environmentalism and politics. The author takes the reader to the U.N. climate change meetings, and shows how politics trumps science in the process. Perhaps the most notable examples are the IPCC Assessment Reports. Every six years or so, the IPCC issues a massive report assessing the issue of climate change. Because the report is so dense, the work of the scientists is handed to a group of public officials, who then write a summary. In the end, science is relegated to a bit part in a political drama.
Rupert Darwall’s “The Age of Global Warming” provides an informative review of the global warming industrial complex. It is an important study because the global warming debate matters. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in response to global climate change policies. Consumers and taxpayers bear the brunt of much of this, especially in Europe, where nations have moved forward on their own with mitigation policies. The United States is not far behind, with the Environmental Protection Agency pushing an aggressive agenda to regulate emissions now that the Supreme Court has paved the way. These costly policies can hamper economic growth, reducing prosperity and threatening the well-being of the very people that climate change advocates claim they are saving.
Wayne T. Brough is the chief economist and vice president for research at FreedomWorks Foundation.