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December 1997
Volume 15, Number 12

Government and the Weather
by James M. Sheehan

When the Soviet Union's central planners failed year after year to produce a respectable grain harvest, they blamed "bad weather." If only the weather could be controlled, Moscow dreamed, communism might be made to work. Officially, communism is dead, but the bureaucratic obsession with controlling the weather lives on in Washington, D.C.

Our national forecasters and soothsayers are warning that the "global climate" will wreak havoc for the next century unless it is brought under control by a United Nations treaty being finalized at a December summit in Kyoto, Japan.

The scare over global warming was first cooked up in the late 1970s, right as the Carter administration's national energy planning boomlet started to run out of gas. Chicken Littles had been warning for years that global supplies of fossil fuels were nearing depletion. But oil's falling prices in the 1980s confirmed that oil would be an abundant source of energy for generations to come without national planning.

The demise of the energy crisis--a consequence of price controls--stunned the environmentalist movement, which had been relishing the prospect of a disruption in industrial development. As the resource-depletion thesis was losing steam, hardened greens at foundation-funded environmental organizations were working to manufacture independent reasons to curtail the use of energy.The message: even though energy resources aren't really running out, we shouldn't consume them anyway.

The anti-energy use lobby focused its attention on carbon dioxide, a harmless gas created during fuel combustion. After briefly fretting about an approaching ice age, environmentalists concluded that CO2 must be adding to the natural "greenhouse effect." The greens decided that "global warming" must be stopped at all costs.

Blaming capitalism for bad weather is an idea that would have delighted Stalin. The proposed cure for planetary fever has today's would-be Stalins salivating (and not from heat exhaustion). In order for government to control the weather and save us all from global warming, the government must control all energy use in industrialized countries.

All producers and consumers must be put on a strict energy diet. We must stop burning the gasoline that runs our automobiles and trucks, the oil and natural gas that heats our homes during winter, and the coal that fuels our electric utilities and power grids. The UN climate treaty would set up a global regulatory state to help us meet these goals using energy conservation measures and alternative fuels (preferably solar, but absolutely not nuclear).

The public will not make such sacrifices easily. So the environmentalists are spinning tales of eco-terror that would make the Unabomber proud. Among the greenhouse lobby's prophecies: melting ice caps, rising seas, coastal flooding, and expanding deserts. Mankind will suffer widespread starvation and disease.

In a desperate attempt to rouse the American people, the Environmental Defense Fund warns that "a major storm surge would nearly encircle the Washington Monument and completely surround the Internal Revenue Service. Muddy waters would even reach the grounds of the U.S. Capitol." Now, how can we bring this about again?

The federal government stokes the propaganda fires with $2 billion per year in climate change "research." Government-funded scientists have developed complex computer models to "prove" greenhouse fears correct. The problem: these models' predictions about the recent climate past contradict ultra-precise satellite observations of global temperature.

In fact, the satellites show a slight global cooling trend since such data became available in 1979. That's no problem for the government, however, which insists that its crystal ball is more accurate than actual data. With environmentalists' help, Leviathan has invented a new type of fatal conceit: presuming an ability to predict the global climate a hundred years out despite not being able to get today's weather right.

The pseudo-scientific global warming propaganda has worked its magic on the media. Every weather event in recent memory--from hurricanes on the Gulf Coast to flooding in South Dakota--has been blamed on capitalist greed. Even the frigid winter of 1996 did not dampen the alarms. Newsweek's Jan. 22, 1996, cover story blamed recent blizzards and record snowfall on (you guessed it) global warming. Whether the climate is wet or dry, warm or cool, it is the fault of the free market. Any bad weather is good reason for a UN treaty to ration global energy use.

Is the possibility of warmer weather really so scary that we should turn what's left of the free market over to UN planners? Climatologists and historians are well aware that climate changes are normal, natural phenomena, and that human beings have flourished under warmer climates, not during ice ages.

Many periods in history are known to have been much warmer than today, with no ill effects. During the 12th and 13th centuries, for example, Europe was so warm that wine grapes could be grown 300 miles north of present confines. Norse peoples raised cattle in Greenland and raised wheat above the Arctic Circle.

Warmer temperatures helped to enrich Western civilization and culture, as this medieval period was a time of abundant cathedral-building and rapid population growth. Its prosperity and human happiness without government is what environmentalists and bureaucrats fear most.


James Sheehan is in business school at Duke University.

FURTHER READING: "Global Warming: Messy Models, Decent Data, and Pointless Policy," by Robert C. Balling, Jr. in The True State of the Planet (Washington, D.C.: Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Free Press, 1995), pp. 83-108; Patrick J. Michaels, "Holes in the Greenhouse Effect?" The Washington Post, June 22, 1997; Alan Cutler, "The Little Ice Age; When Global Cooling Gripped the World," The Washington Post, August 13, 1997.


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