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Earth Day Turns 40

When Earth Day was first celebrated 40 years ago, there were many good reasons to be concerned about the environment. Not only did trash litter the landscape, but rivers were catching fire and massive numbers of fish were dying due to unrestricted pollution from factories. Lake Erie was essentially a dead lake. Lead in paint and auto exhaust were real health hazards for many.

Today, these problems have been largely alleviated. But for those whose worldview requires a pristine and undisturbed natural world, the fight to reduce pollution will never be over. That’s because as long as there are humans using natural resources, the world will never be pristine or undisturbed.

What, exactly, is “pollution”? Like pornography, it is difficult to define, but we all know it when we see it. Yet it is useful to explore how we might define the term, because it will help us to understand that the whole concept of pollution really is a philosophical, or even religious, concept.

One definition of pollution that comes to mind as I write this is: any byproduct of human activity that presents a significant danger to the health of either humans or other forms of life.

So, if a dense collection of humans living in a small area smothers out other forms of life that could potentially live there if it were not for all of the waste products lying around and the natural resources being gobbled up, we might logically say that those humans are polluting the environment. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that the same can be said of other forms of life, too. Take for example a forest of trees. Trees rob lesser forms of vegetation of sunlight. They leave their decaying body parts scattered all over. What right do trees have to do this?

In fact, almost all forms of life on Earth feed off of other forms of life. What we consider to be pristine nature is in reality a battleground between different forms of life that are all competing for the same natural resources — if not each others’ heads.

Of course, these different forms of life are simply doing what they need to do to survive and to flourish. So, why do some environmentalists want to deny humans the same right? I will admit that humans have the capability to do more damage than any other species on the face of the earth. But does this mean we have no right to live here?

In the last few years, marine biologists have returned to Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, the site of nuclear-weapons tests in the 1940s and 1950s. These horrific weapons incinerated and irradiated the local environment. But, to their astonishment, the researchers found that marine life at Bikini Atoll had returned to normal, with large, healthy corals and schools of fish. For being so “delicately balanced,” nature sure seems to be awfully resilient.

The most dire environmental scare in recent years has been the threat of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. But just like many other predictions of environmental doom over the years, this one is beginning to lose steam as we learn more about how the climate system operates. For instance, my new book, released on April 20, titled The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World's Top Climate Scientists, describes our recent peer-reviewed research that suggests that the climate system is not nearly as sensitive to our greenhouse-gas emissions as most climate scientists currently believe. The reason researchers were fooled is they have misinterpreted the behavior of clouds in the climate system. In fact, it could be that small, yet natural, changes in cloud cover are responsible for what we call “global warming.”

But even if the threat of global warming from our carbon dioxide emissions fades away, waiting in the wings is the next threat: ocean acidification. Since CO2 dissolved in water makes carbonic acid, it is believed that the pH of the ocean will decrease as the CO2 content of the atmosphere slowly increases.

The more I look into this issue, though, the more it resembles the global-warming issue in terms of our ignorance regarding the ability of nature to adapt. Some recent research suggests that more CO2 might actually be beneficial for sea life, as we already know it is for most kinds of vegetation.

Indeed, since carbon dioxide is necessary for life on Earth, shouldn’t we be discussing the possibility that more atmospheric CO2 will be, on the whole, good for life on Earth? We obsess over the relatively weak contribution that carbon dioxide makes to our atmospheric greenhouse effect, and ignore the great benefits that more atmospheric CO2 brings to the biosphere.

Nature is always changing anyway. El Niño and La Niña are natural modes of climate variability that are particularly hard on ecosystems in some parts of the world. When nature changes with these events, there are always winners and losers. Not allowing ourselves to be part of that dynamic process is a fundamentally philosophical or religious position to take.

It’s not the religious part of the belief that I mind. It’s the pawning it off as “science” on a public that is increasingly misinformed and under-educated about scientific issues. I have to wonder: Is Earth Day being used to teach our children the way the natural world works, or is it being used to indoctrinate them into performing rituals that will help absolve them of their eco-sins?

I am not opposed to cleaning things up. If there are things we can do that help reduce our impact on the environment without causing human suffering, then I am all for it. But it is that human-suffering part that those of us in more prosperous countries tend to forget about. For instance, there are no economically viable — or even practical — replacements for carbon-based fuels that can be deployed on a sufficient scale to substantially reduce our CO2 emissions. It will likely be decades before we do have such technology. And when we force people to use energy sources that are more expensive, it is the world’s poor who are hit the hardest.

As long as people are allowed the freedom to use and benefit from their creativity, we will eventually solve our energy problems. In contrast, it is the ineffective carbon-restricting policies being discussed today that we should fear the most. Such policies prevent the generation of the extra wealth needed for R&D, and they might actually delay the development of the new energy technologies we will eventually need.

Roy Spencer is a climatologist and former NASA scientist. His latest book is The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World's Top Climate Scientists.

Read the entire article on the National Review Online website (new window will open).

Published: April 26, 2010

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