The Frontal Cortex

Easterbrook on Global Warming

In the new Atlantic, the always optimistic Gregg Easterbrook has an interesting take on global warming: it’s not inevitable. His logic is historical. Given the ease with which we solved past air-pollution problems (CFC’s, acid rain, etc.), we can also figure out how to postpone our warming atmosphere. I’m not entirely convinced, but the article certainly made me a bit less gloomy:

Here’s a different way of thinking about the greenhouse effect: that action to prevent runaway global warming may prove cheap, practical, effective, and totally consistent with economic growth. Which makes a body wonder: Why is such environmental optimism absent from American political debate?

Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem–and all previous air-pollution problems have been reduced faster and more cheaply than predicted, without economic harm. Some of these problems once seemed scary and intractable, just as greenhouse gases seem today. About forty years ago urban smog was increasing so fast that President Lyndon Johnson warned, “Either we stop poisoning our air or we become a nation [in] gas masks groping our way through dying cities.” During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, emissions of chlorofluoro¬≠carbons, or CFCs, threatened to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. As recently as George H. W. Bush’s administration, acid rain was said to threaten a “new silent spring” of dead Appalachian forests.

But in each case, strong regulations were enacted, and what happened? Since 1970, smog-forming air pollution has declined by a third to a half. Emissions of CFCs have been nearly eliminated, and studies suggest that ozone-layer replenishment is beginning. Acid rain, meanwhile, has declined by a third since 1990, while Appalachian forest health has improved sharply.

Most progress against air pollution has been cheaper than expected. Smog controls on automobiles, for example, were predicted to cost thousands of dollars for each vehicle. Today’s new cars emit less than 2 percent as much smog-forming pollution as the cars of 1970, and the cars are still as affordable today as they were then. Acid-rain control has cost about 10 percent of what was predicted in 1990, when Congress enacted new rules. At that time, opponents said the regulations would cause a “clean-air recession”; instead, the economy boomed.

Greenhouse gases, being global, are the biggest air-pollution problem ever faced. And because widespread fossil-fuel use is inevitable for some time to come, the best-case scenario for the next few decades may be a slowing of the rate of greenhouse-gas buildup, to prevent runaway climate change. Still, the basic pattern observed in all other forms of air-pollution control–rapid progress at low cost–should repeat for greenhouse-gas controls.

Yet a paralyzing negativism dominates global-warming politics. Environmentalists depict climate change as nearly unstoppable; skeptics speak of the problem as either imaginary (the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated,” in the words of Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate’s environment committee) or ruinously expensive to address.


  1. #1 somnilista, FCD
    August 7, 2006

    But in each case, strong regulations were enacted, and what happened?

    There’s a difference right there. The current administration has shown no willingness to even acknowledge the problem, let alone act on it. We’re headed for a brick wall, and our driver is stepping on the gas, not the brake.

  2. #2 somnilista, FCD
    August 7, 2006

    Another difference is that acid rain, smog, etc were caused by impurities or unproductive side effects of the fuel or process. Carbon dioxide is at the core of the process. You can remove sulfur efrom the coal, but if you remove the carbon from the coal, you really don’t have much left.

    As for freon, we switched to an alternative chemical that doesn’t contribute as much to the problem. There is no easy switch from burning carbon-based fuels. Every suggested alternative has problems of its own. Nuclear has problems with safety, waste disposal and security, and wind, solar, etc. have problems with economics and NIMBY. All of these technologies would have challenges with infrastructure compatibility. If you have easy answers, by all means share them.

  3. #3 Barry
    August 7, 2006

    IIRC, Easterbrook has a long history of really, really bad science coverage.

    Start with Deltoid:

  4. #4 bigTom
    August 7, 2006

    I don’t think Easterbrook is quite as far off base as the above blogs seem to indicate your readership thinks. Admittedly he downplays the fact that CO2 is a primary waste product of combustion, and not a trace output. Clearly we must either substantially cut back usage of carbon based fuels, or do large scale sequestration. Nevertheless, he is correct that we haven’t had market incentives in place long enough to see what kind of solutions can be generated. I’ve always contended that our first action should be to get the incentives in place, then after perhaps a decade, we can evaluate what sorts of solutions are being created.

  5. #5 Crusty Dem
    August 9, 2006

    Somnilista beat me to why Easterbrook is so wrong (great post).

    Easterbrook is a right-wing nut. He talks like a science-lover (pro-evolution, recognizes global warming), but then writes bizarrely non-scientific or anti-scientific rants. He once wrote an article dismissing physicists for not recognizing that their mega-dimensional posits did not include the possibility for “the dimension of the spirit”. In short, he’s a nut in sheep’s clothing.

    I have been occasionally amused by his football writing, although he’s not much more knowledgable about football than he is about science. He doesn’t believe in the blitz, says it doesn’t win championships. Hmm, did the Steelers use the blitz last year???