Hysterics Block Clear Thought

November 9, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared on Exam​in​er​.com on November 9, 2007.

The Associated Press ran a story last week on how the California wildfires were spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, suggesting that the emissions could contribute to global warming. Most of us probably found the piece pretty harmless. But if you were one of the unfortunate thousands whose houses had actually burned to the ground, you probably couldn’t help wondering whether reporters were missing the point.

Maybe they could have waited a little longer after the fires were out to talk about the “environmental impact” — if not out of a just estimation of things, then just out of basic human decency. After all, as you stand on the ashes of your house, the prospect of warmer weather some time in the next century isn’t quite as immediate as the inferno that just torched all your earthly possessions.

In a sense, the science doesn’t even matter. The researchers who AP quotes — Jason Neff of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Christine Wiedinmeyer of the National Center for Atmospheric Research — have fine credentials, and their work probably stands up to scrutiny. They estimate that the wildfires released 8.7 million tons of carbon dioxide — “more than the state of Vermont produces in a year,” AP writer Seth Borenstein pointed out. (Ironically, it’s these sorts of details that remind you that carbon dioxide output doesn’t tell you all you need to know about a place. North Korea probably doesn’t put out as much CO2 as the state of California, but there are reasons for that.)

Yet, the way in which reporters have seized on it makes you wonder why people — Americans especially — seem so willing to let words on a page whip them into a frenzy when the world itself is kicking them in the pants.

It’s a strange testament to our historical moment. So humbled are we by our foreign policy failures, so great has our hubris become that we actually think we’re five miles per gallon away from Armageddon. The global warming faithful couldn’t be surer that we’re bringing about our own demise.

We can take comfort in the fact that just as we don’t have unlimited power to heal the world, we don’t have unlimited power to destroy it, either. And yet, there are other causes to which we might commit our resources as individuals, associations and a nation and actually accomplish something concrete.

The costs of reducing carbon dioxide emissions dramatically would be substantial — probably in the hundreds of billions over time — and the climatic results not at all clear. As Bjorn Lomborg wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, the United Nations estimates that for $75 billion, “we could solve all the world’s major basic problems. We could give everyone clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care and education right now. Is that not better?”

One can have his doubts about the true costs of providing all of the above to all the world — or the wisdom of using unaccountable bureaucracies to do so — but it’s hard to conclude that we should go to great lengths to cut a single kind of emission to hedge against possible future problems when we have real problems right now. People are dying in genocides. People are dying in terrorist attacks. People are dying because they can’t get clean drinking water, and because counterproductive international aid policies prevent them from spraying the walls of their houses with DDT to prevent malaria.

There must be a thousand problems more pressing than global warming. It’s hard to get jazzed about the greenhouse effect when you don’t have a roof over your head. Do we have any idea how many people can’t take that for granted?

When you stop to think about it, the entire preoccupation seems ridiculous. But you aren’t really supposed to think about it, are you?

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