Editor's note: Nicholas Kristof is giving us part of our problematique for Kyoto Cities. This is what we have to work with, for better or worse. And this is, I would propose, a pretty strong argument for the kinds of more ambitious, results-oriented, non-research (in the old sense), non hand-wringing approaches which we are trying to advance with all our cooperative efforts here. Click the title here and have a look at the full piece from the Breakthrough Institute.
New York Times, March 12, 2005
When environmentalists are writing tracts like "The Death of Environmentalism," you know the movement is in deep trouble.
That essay by two young environmentalists has been whirling around the Internet since last fall, provoking a civil war among tree-huggers for its assertion that "modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live." Sadly, the authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, are right.
The U.S. environmental movement is unable to win on even its very top priorities, even though it has the advantage of mostly being right. Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be approved soon, and there's been no progress whatsoever in the U.S. on what may be the single most important issue to Earth in the long run: climate change.
The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they've lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left's equivalents of the neocons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance. (Industry has also hyped risks with wildly exaggerated warnings that environmental protections will entail a terrible economic cost.)
"The Death of Environmentalism" resonated with me. I was once an environmental groupie, and I still share the movement's broad aims, but I'm now skeptical of the movement's "I Have a Nightmare" speeches.
In the 1970's, the environmental movement was convinced that the Alaska oil pipeline would devastate the Central Arctic caribou herd. Since then, it has quintupled.
When I first began to worry about climate change, global cooling and nuclear winter seemed the main risks. As Newsweek said in 1975: "Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend ... but they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century."
This record should teach environmentalists some humility. The problems are real, but so is the uncertainty. Environmentalists were right about DDT's threat to bald eagles, for example, but blocking all spraying in the third world has led to hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths.
Likewise, environmentalists were right to warn about population pressures, but they overestimated wildly. Paul Ehrlich warned in "The Population Bomb" that "the battle to feed humanity is over. ...Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." On my bookshelf is an even earlier book, "Too Many Asians," with a photo of a mass of Indians on the cover. The book warns that the threat from relentlessly multiplying Asians is "even more grave than that of nuclear warfare."
Jared Diamond, author of the fascinating new book "Collapse," which shows how some civilizations in effect committed suicide by plundering their environments, says false alarms aren't a bad thing. Professor Diamond argues that if we accept false alarms for fires, then why not for the health of our planet? But environmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise.
At one level, we're all environmentalists now. The Pew Research Center found that more than three-quarters of Americans agree that "this country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment." Yet support for the environment is coupled with a suspicion of environmental groups. "The Death of Environmentalism" notes that a poll
in 2000 found that 41 percent of Americans considered environmental activists to be "extremists." There are many sensible environmentalists, of course, but overzealous ones have tarred the entire field.
The loss of credibility is tragic because reasonable environmentalists - without alarmism or exaggerations - are urgently needed.
Given the uncertainties and trade-offs, priority should go to avoiding environmental damage that is irreversible, like extinctions, climate change and loss of wilderness. And irreversible changes are precisely what are at stake with the Bush administration's plans to drill in the Arctic wildlife refuge, to allow roads in virgin wilderness and to do essentially nothing on global warming. That's an agenda that will disgrace us before our grandchildren.
So it's critical to have a credible, nuanced, highly respected environmental movement. And right now, I'm afraid we don't have one.