Climate alarmism redux

by Jonathan Reisman


Note- I am teaching Environmental Policy this fall, for perhaps the last time. I first taught it more than 30 years ago. The spotted owl endangered species listing and Maine’s efforts to comply with the Clean Air Act Amendments were important parts of my early studies. I advised gubernatorial candidate Angus King to oppose car testing and worked in Augusta to get rid of it. Upon returning to UMM, I found the theoretical elements of the endangered species act I had studied from afar were alarmingly real and personal with the Atlantic salmon, and I led the ultimately unsuccessful effort opposing the listing. I ran for Congress a few years later and found myself in greater and greater conflict with the environmental left and their alarmist strategies. In 2008, I wrote this (slightly amended) piece for Bangor Metro. Not much has changed.

Maine has a reputation of being pretty “green.” Maine’s green advocates on the environmental left have successfully demonized capitalism, perfected apocalyptic fearmongering as an agenda-setting and fundraising strategy, established environmentalism as a secular state religion (with taxpayers filling up the collection plate), all the while managing to avoid any accountability for the negative consequences of their actions. Who says it’s not easy being green? 

Maine’s green agenda is even sporting a new buzzword: “sustainability.” Sustainability is at first glance an appealing concept. The idea behind sustainability is “Don’t eat the seed corn,” or more formally, do not take actions that reduce the opportunities and prospects of coming generations. Wrapped in the politically correct swaddling clothes of the United Nations 1987 Report on the Environment (Agenda 21, or the Brundtland Report), everyone wants to be “sustainable.” There may be near unanimous agreement on desiring good stewardship and sustainability of natural and human resources, but there is no agreement on what exactly that might mean in practice. What is or is not “sustainable” depends on assumptions about technological change, economic systems, and human nature. Thomas Malthus (father of the population explosion hysteria and the first Professor of Sustainability) made such assumptions and predicted humankind’s collapse. His heirs in today’s environmental movement employ similar tactics. Predicting apocalypse and crying wolf get you attention and funding— especially if you take steps to assure you will not be held accountable for repeatedly and incorrectly crying wolf.

Global warming is the latest and most successful effort along these lines. Al Gore got a Nobel Prize for it. After all, bending a little science in the name of saving the planet is not really a mortal sin, is it? Just a little green lie. I am a member of the environmental right. We do not have too many members here in Maine, certainly not in our U.S. Congressional offices or mainstream media. The environmental right includes a fellow named Bjorn Lomborg, mathematician, professor, and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and False Alarm. Lomborg has this annoying habit of looking at the data (usually United Nations data) and he keeps coming back with a conclusion the wolf criers cannot abide—that air and water quality are getting better, human longevity and welfare are improving, and spending trillions of dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not avert global warming but will actually make us both poorer and less sustainable. Because of such heretical statements, the environmental left sought to silence and demonize Lomborg. In my opinion, he should have gotten the Nobel Prize.

As part of Maine’s efforts to “fight” climate change, in August 2001 Maine signed an agreement with the Maritime Provinces and the other New England states to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The New England Governors/Eastern Canadian Premiers Climate Change Action Plan is essentially an updated regional version of the infamous Kyoto Protocol. (The Kyoto Protocol was of course famously rejected by President Bush in April of 2001. Somewhat less famously, the U.S. Senate rejected the terms of Kyoto 95–0 in 1997, and President Clinton, for some reason, never took it to the Senate for ratification after that.) Maine has also signed an agreement with a number of other “blue” states to implement reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This initiative, like the Kyoto Protocol, will stealthily and perhaps substantially raise energy prices, yet will avert essentially no global warming. Legislation to require disclosure of those facts was derailed by Maines’ environmental left in 2005. It seems that transparency, honesty, and accountability just will not do in climate change policy. There is also the small matter of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids such interstate and international agreements without the consent of Congress (Article l, Section 10, Clause 3).

Governor Mills ran as full-fledged climate alarmist and empaneled a climate change policy task force, which recommended we increase public land ownership to 30% of the state (doubling it from the current 15.) Public ownership is not distributed at all evenly, with the vast majority in the 2nd Congressional District, with over 30% of Washington County already in public ownership. The 30% statewide goal mirrors a national goal of 30% promoted by President Biden. Neither Maine’s nor the US public ownership goals will be brought up for legislative approval. 

Perhaps someday the environmental left’s stranglehold on Maine’s political culture will be broken. If that ever happens, here are the principles that should guide environmental policy:

 Good stewardship is based on facts not fears. Careful cost- and risk-benefit analysis should govern decision making, as opposed to emotional fear mongering designed to make the case for aggressive intervention. 

Wealth makes health. Growing successful economies are essential to environmental quality because they provide both the means and the desire to protect the environment. The worst environmental problems are in the third world; the cleanest environments are in developed countries.

Technological innovation and entrepreneurship are critical for human progress. Policies that discourage prudent risk taking and new technologies out of excessive risk aversion and/or fear of technology (the precautionary principle) should not be adopted. Stifling the development of new technologies through excessive regulations only condemns much of humanity to poverty and hopelessness. 

Socialism is not sustainable. Policy prescriptions that decrease private ownership and control of the economy (capitalism) are not consistent with economic growth and will ultimately decrease both human well-being and environmental quality.

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