Greta Thunberg is wrong

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate warrior, berates the world (“How dare you?”) for pursuing a “fairy tale” of continued economic growth — putting money ahead of combating global warming. A previous local newspaper commentary hit every phrase of the litany: “species decimation, rainforest destruction . . . ocean acidification . . . fossil-fuel-guzzling, consumer-driven . . . wreaked havoc . . . blind to [the] long-term implication . . . driven by those who would profit . . . our mad, profligate  . . . warmongering . . . plasticization and chemical fertilization . . . failed to heed the wise admonition of our indigenous elders . . . .”

The litany of misanthropes hating their own species and especially their civilization.

Lookit. There’s no free lunch. Call it “raping the planet” if you like, but we could never have risen from the stone age without utilizing as fully as possible the natural resources available. And if you romanticize our pre-modern existence (“harmony with nature” and all), well, you’d probably be dead now, because most earlier people didn’t make thirty. And those short lives were nasty and brutish. There was no ibuprofen.

This grimness pretty much persisted until the Industrial Revolution. Only now, by putting resource utilization in high gear, could ordinary folks begin to live decently. People like that commentator fantasize giving it up. Or, more fantastical, our somehow still living decently without consuming the resources making it possible.

These are often the same voices bemoaning world poverty. Oblivious to how much poverty has actually declined — thanks to all the resource utilization they condemn. And to how their program would deny decent lives to the billion or so still in extreme poverty. Hating the idea of pursuing economic growth may be fine for those living in affluent comfort. Less so for the world’s poorest.

Note, as an example, the mention of “chemical fertilization.” This refers to what’s called the “green revolution” — revolutionizing agriculture to improve yields and combat hunger, especially in poorer nations. It’s been estimated this has saved a couple billion lives. And of course made a big dent in global poverty.

But isn’t “chemical fertilization,” and economic development more generally, bad for the environment? Certainly! Again, no free lunch. In particular, the climate change we’re hastening will, as Thunberg says, likely have awful future impacts. Yet bad as that is, it’s not actually humanity’s biggest challenge. The greater factors affecting human well-being will remain the age-old prosaic problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, conflict, and ignorance. Economic growth helps us battle all those. We should not cut it back for the sake of climate. In fact, growing economic resources will help us deal with climate change too. It’s when countries are poor that they most abuse the environment; affluence improves environmental stewardship. And it’s poor countries who will suffer most from climate change, and will most need the resources provided by economic growth to cope with it.

Of course we must do everything reasonably possible to minimize resource extraction, environmental impacts, and the industrial carbon emissions that accelerate global warming. But “reasonably possible” means not at the expense of lower global living standards. Bear in mind that worldwide temperatures will continue to rise even if we eliminate carbon emissions totally (totally unrealistic, of course). Emission reductions can moderate warming only slightly. That tells us to focus less on emissions and more on preparing to adapt to higher temperatures. And more on studying geo-engineering possibilities for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and otherwise re-cooling the planet. Yet most climate warriors actually oppose such efforts, instead obsessing exclusively on carbon reduction, in a misguided jihad against economic growth, as though to punish humanity for “raping the planet.”

Most greens are also dead set against nuclear power, imagining that renewables like solar and wind energy can fulfill all our needs. Talk about fairy tales. Modern nuclear power plants are very safe and emit no greenhouse gases. We cannot hope to bend down the curve of emissions without greatly expanded use of nuclear power. Radioactive waste is an issue. But do you think handling that presents a bigger challenge than to replace the bulk of existing power generation with renewables?

I don’t believe we’re a race of planet rapists. Our resource utilization and economic development has improved quality of life — the only thing that can ultimately matter. The great thing about our species, enabling us to be so spectacularly successful, is our ability to adapt and cope with what nature throws at us. Climate change and environmental degradation are huge challenges. But we can surmount them. Without self-flagellation.

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6 Responses to “Greta Thunberg is wrong”

  1. Bob C Says:

    Many excellent points here, only one aspect of power was missed. The most promising electric generation measures are (1) reduction of incredibly wasteful use with great savings, (2) capture of carbon from exhaust gas by the latest cost-reducing technologies, and (3) yes, also renewables like solar and wind which are rapidly becoming cost-competitive in many areas. Decades of power industry and environmental/safety engineering experience have convinced me that the nuclear option is a bad one in terms of true total costs, including additions for long-deferred waste disposal and facility shutdown/site reclamation. You are correct that cost is important, especially to those most in need!

  2. Monica Timbal Says:

    successful?? people die of stress more today than at any other time, and less happy or satisfied with life. we’re cut off from nature, from life, and from ourselves.

  3. Lee Says:

    Sometimes the best way to get a message across is intellectual discussion, sometimes it is appeals to sympathy, sometimes it is anger, and there are a multitude of variations. It all depends upon the audience and the personality of the speaker. I, for one, am happy that people are conveying this message in multiple ways, because it is an important one.

    1. We need to reduce carbon emissions. Almost surely, no one way will be sufficient, but that is no excuse not to call out the highest priorities such as reducing emissions from our transportation industry.
    2. We need effective carbon sequestration techniques. Almost surely, no one way will be sufficient, but that is no excuse not to call out the highest priorities.

    I don’t care so much whether Thunberg’s delivery appeals to you. Do you or do you not agree with #1 and #2 above? I would be very happy to see you advocate for these points in the manner that is most fitting for your personality and audience.

  4. Lee Says:

    The number of people displaced when the city of Chernobyl ceased to exist was about 14,000, which is small compared to the impact of global climate change. As such, discussions of nuclear energy are indeed fair game.

    Of course, nearby Kiev is 2-3 million, so we do need to be very careful. I have a strong urge to argue that nuclear power should be NIMBY.

  5. Lee Says:

    Governor of California Gavin Newsom and others argue that economic growth and environmentalism are synergistic rather than in opposition. I think he is right.

  6. Bob C Says:

    Yes, Lee, your note about “reducing emissions from our transportation industry” is a good one. Highway and railway transportation should be powered by cleanly & efficiently generated electricity. Nuclear power projects should lack sites as world population increases and nimbyists prevail. And I think that Gov. Newsom is correct that environmentalism should be seen as a valuable economic engine. Cleanups, efficiency improvements, and waste reductions could add more value than many present jobs. Sounds like rational optimism to me!

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