Twenty years denouncing the eco-militants

Twenty years ago I established the Environment Unit at the IEA to present a free-market alternative to the general doom and gloom and socialist militancy of many greens. We pursued projects on the importance of property rights to conservation and exposing junk science in environmental policy. The Unit published a dozen monographs and held many events. It also helped spawn the International Policy Network, founded by myself and Julian Morris, who had become a fellow at the IEA soon after I arrived. Today he is Vice President for research at the Reason Foundation.

Julian Morris and I wrote the Unit’s first publication, Global Warming: Apocalypse or Hot Air? Twenty years on, in May of this year, CO2 levels broke the symbolic milestone of 400ppm level for the first time: levels were around 360ppm when we drafted the monograph. Yet, while greenhouse gases continue to accelerate (largely because of rapid development in China and other emerging nations), evidence of climate impact is still hard to prove, and harm even more difficult to establish. As was the case twenty years ago, without better evidence of harm, no political action to significantly lower emissions is going to occur, because of the crippling cost.

It is ironic that the United States is one of the few countries to have lowered its emissions in recent years, since it largely rejected the emission strictures agreed in Europe. The US did not mandate limiting the use of fossil fuels, but its systems switched from dirty coal to cleaner gas. This was done by the expansion of technologies opposed by most environmentalists – fracking.

So greens have failed to get wholesale political change on climate issues, but lots of small scale policies such as energy conservation building codes have been enacted over the years that more reasoned environmentalists can claim credit for.

Greens can also claim credit for some rather dubious policies based on weak science. Food bans based on genetic modification are probably the most egregious, but insecticide bans have probably had the largest impacts. The success of the greens began with prohibition of the insecticide DDT in all rich nations, even though the scientific evidence of harm was scant. DDT did accumulate in the environment and, where overused, did harm some species, but it was safer for use by agricultural workers than alternatives, and its demise also harmed malaria control and prevention of other mosquito-borne diseases.

In 1999 it looked as though greens would succeed in having DDT banned for all uses worldwide by 2007. Today it is still used in many places, notably southern Africa, saving thousands of children every year.

I played a small part in preventing the DDT ban, primarily working in United States and with a group, Africa Fighting Malaria, based in South Africa. We explained the science and economics of DDT. We dwelt on the hypocrisy of westerners pushing for a ban when DDT had eradicated malaria from Europe and America in the 1950s. Independent journalists and academics wrote about the issue fairly, and Southern African governments defended its use. As a result of this success, green groups and some journalists stepped up their maligning of those who defended DDT.

They have employed an interesting tactic as well as a far more familiar one. From climate change to DDT they have claimed that we are doing the bidding of big business, wilfully ignoring that business interests were on the other side: modern insecticide manufacturers do not make DDT and want to sell alternatives and large energy firms like the barriers to entry they can carve out in climate politics. But perhaps more surprising is that green activists have claimed we have been wildly successful in our efforts. One green web magazine article called me a ‘free market magician’ for almost single-handedly rehabilitating DDT’s reputation.

Their tactics seem to be designed to provide cover for their policy failure, re-energise their funding base to renew their efforts and to demonise their opponents. Such tactics will probably not work on legitimate journalists and policymakers, but they may well succeed with their base, so I suspect such efforts are likely to increase.

In light of this, twenty years on, efforts to combat green alarmism are still very much required.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2013 issue of EA Magazine.

1 thought on “Twenty years denouncing the eco-militants”

  1. Posted 15/10/2013 at 07:58 | Permalink

    I commend you for offering a free-market alterative to socialist militancy on environmental issues. I’m not so sure however about a free-market alternative to doom and gloom. While some predictions of dire consequences may be exaggerated to support a socialist agenda, there are also genuine reasons for concern on a range of environmental issues. In respect of anthropogenic climate change I suggest that the question should not be “Has it been proven to exist?” but “What does the balance of evidence suggest, and what is the range of uncertainty as to how rapidly climate may change in future?” I am inclined to think that it does exist but that there is a wide range of uncertainty in both directions, ie future warming might be either much slower or much faster than IPCC projections suggest. I suggest that the free-market message in relation to climate change should be this: whatever the future holds (moderate or catastrophic change, or none at all), we will be better off with free markets enabling individuals and countries to adapt to circumstances in the most efficient and least painful ways. Two of the more important aspects of this are 1) free trade in food products, facilitating adaptation to possible differential effects of climate change on agriculture in different regions, 2) free property markets, allowing property prices to reflect local environmental conditions such as risk of inundation by a rising sea levels, creating incentives for new building to be located where risks are lower.

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