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Some Like It Hot

In response to:

Endgame from the August 11, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

This responds to the review of The Real Environmental Crisis [Tim Flannery, “Endgame,” NYR, August 11]. The book’s central thesis is that the future of environmental protection lies in promoting development. This runs counter to the common environmental mantra that affluence causes our environmental woes. The book’s analysis of a wide range of environment and resource topics supports the case that “the essential prerequisites for a sustainable environmental future are a global transition from poverty to affluence, coupled with a transition to freedom and democracy.”

The reviewer unfortunately ignores the book’s major themes, and focuses mainly on the chapter on climate change. His comments, however, confuse the fact of ongoing global warming with the hypothesis that human activities are causing it. I kept these two issues clearly separate. Indeed, the chapter’s first sentence reads “Is the earth warming? Yes, the earth has warmed since the mid-1800s.” That should be clear enough, yet the reviewer states that my “assessment ignores enormous quantities of hard data indicating that climate change has already begun.” Of course, climate change has begun! Ever since the earth was formed millions of years ago, climate change and climate cycles (ice ages, warm periods, etc.) have been going on continuously as natural evolutionary processes. The earth’s climate is now in a warming trend, following the cooling (“Little Ice Age”) that occurred from about 1400 to 1880.

The real issue is not the fact that the earth’s surface has recently warmed, but the degree to which human use of fossil fuels may be contributing to that warming. The “hard data” that the reviewer cites, e.g., melting of glaciers and permafrost, may indeed be related to warming climate, but we have no hard data regarding the relative contributions to the warming climate by human activities vs. natural climate change. We have only the results of computer models, burdened with large inherent uncertainties, which indicate that the human contribution to climate change may now be discernible. Based on such uncertain results, the Kyoto Treaty could have cost this country trillions, while having negligible effect on climate change.

A cost-effective means of addressing environmental concerns over fossil fuels is using them more efficiently. Oil price increases are also a motivator toward efficient use. In the book I stressed the importance of increasing vehicle fuel efficiency, writing, “there is no technical reason why the fuel efficiency of SUVs and light trucks could not be much higher.” It is good that the administration has recently proposed new efficiency regulations for these categories, but I believe the new rules do not go nearly far enough.

The reviewer’s claim that I am “critical of the Ehrlichs” misrepresents what I wrote. When discussing Professor Ehrlich’s 1968 prediction of a population crisis, I pointed out that “in 1968, fear about global overpopulation was not entirely without basis,” and I went on to explain that in the twentieth century, “population growth had been extremely rapid by historical measures.” The reviewer also falsely claims that a referenced quote on page 10 refers to the Ehrlichs, which it does not. And on page 181, I quoted, respectfully rather than critically, a thoughtful statement by Professor Ehrlich on the ethical issues regarding preservation of biodiversity.

Among his misrepresentations and ad hominem attacks, the reviewer makes the ludicrous suggestion that I “seek to dismiss concern about climate change for political reasons.” On the contrary, in my chapter I urge the industrial nations to “ensure the future credibility of climate science by totally separating the pursuit of this important science from global politics.” In exhorting scientists to “muster political power,” the reviewer is doing exactly the opposite.

Jack M. Hollander

Berkeley, California

Tim Flannery replies:

Professor Hollander objects to my review on four grounds. He asserts that: (1) I ignore his book’s major themes; (2) human influence on climate is unproven; (3) I misrepresent him as being critical of the Ehrlichs; and (4) my suspicion about his political motivations is “ludicrous.”

To explain the text is the first obligation of every reviewer, and the major themes of The Real Environmental Crisis are in fact clearly laid out in my review. As to Hollander’s belief that there is no link between human activity and climate change, even President George W. Bush disagrees with him here. At the Gleneagles summit in Scotland in July of this year, the G8 leaders (including President Bush) signed a document titled “Climate Change, Clean Energy and Sustainable Development,” which states:

Climate change is a serious and long-term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the globe. We know that increased need and use of energy from fossil fuels, and other human activities, contribute in large part to increases in greenhouse gases associated with the warming of our Earth’s surface. While uncertainties remain in our understanding of climate science, we know enough to act now to put ourselves on a path to slow and, as the science justifies, stop and then reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.

Have I unfairly accused Hollander of criticizing the Ehrlichs? The Real Environmental Crisis lumps together as doomsayers and pessimists those scientists and environmentalists who oppose the author’s view that warming will be good for the world. Referring on page 10 (page 11 of my copy) to public statements by the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, Professor Hollander writes: “Typical of today’s environmental pessimism, these doomsday pronouncements contain grains of truth embedded in a sea of exaggeration.” The reader is left in little doubt that Professor Ehrlich is included in this company when he reads on page 30, “In recent times the pessimistic view of population growth has been championed by biologist Paul Ehrlich [who] predicted that global overpopulation would cause massive famines as early as the 1970s.”

In my review I lay out clearly why I suspect that political bias has crept into Hollander’s book: his welcoming of climate change, his assertion that the scientists have “got it backwards,” his ignoring of the now voluminous evidence of climate change’s catastrophic nature, and his accusation of anti-Western politics on the part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all support my argument. Whether my reasoning is “ludicrous” is a decision best left to the reader.

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