From Population Bomb to Inconvenient Truth

Oct 8, 2013

A stranded ship in the former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan, in 2003.
Credit Staecker / Wikimedia Commons

If I were to tell you a story about the long-term outlook for the world -- our people, our resources, our air, water and food -- and what we should do about it, you might expect that the story would start with climate change. It has become the lead issue of the environmental movement, and according to many, the most important issue of our time.

"There's a new climate coming. People need to worry a good deal about that." Gary Yohe

Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University who serves on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is among those who use years of data to tell a very scary story about what our climate will look like in the near future, where the level of the oceans will be, and even what we should be frightened about in our daily weather patterns now.  

"I think we should be very scared," he told The Connecticut Mirror in September. "I think that livelihoods will be in jeopardy; coastal property will be in jeopardy with likelihoods that are higher than anybody thought -- certainly not calibrated from the past 30 years of weather data on the old climate. There’s a new climate coming. So I think people need to worry a good deal about that." 

Yohe is one of the academic faces of the modern environmental movement. But the ball didn't start rolling toward widespread acceptance of the reality of climate change until a high-profile champion claimed the issue. Former Vice President Al Gore's 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth" linked a warming earth to stranded polar bears and fast-melting ice caps:

On the other side of this argument is a free-market conservative movement that discounts overwhelming climate change science and capitalizes on missteps and overreaches by environmentalists.  The most visible public face for this group? No, not the cheekily named Non-Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which purports to introduce Americans to "The Real World of Climate." It's none other than Rush Limbaugh, who mocks Gore and other enviros as "Chicken Littles," yelling about a sky that is not falling.

It wasn't until Yale Professor Paul Sabin's excellent book, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future, that I fully understood the deep roots of this fight, which sounded pretty similar in 1968 to what we're hearing today. Sure, at the time, "climate change" wasn't a thing -- but the specter of a world too crowded for us all to live was the subject of a vigorous national debate.

And see if this sounds familiar: on one side was Paul Ehrlich, whose best-seller The Population Bomb told a frightening tale of what horrors unchecked population growth would wreak. He had a big personality, and a big platform that included The Tonight Show.

On the other side was Julian Simon, a free-market economist who was rankled by Ehrlich's message. More people could only be good for the planet, Simon said. More people, more ideas, more progress. But what rankled Simon more, it seemed, was Ehrlich's celebrity and the easy acceptance of his ideas by the mainstream press. (Decades later, Limbaugh would dub us "The Drive-By Media.")

Author Paul Sabin told WNPR's Where We Live that writing about these two early environmental combatants taught him the value of seeing both sides of the story. When it comes to predictions of catastrophe caused by climate change, Sabin said, "We should be cautious about those kind of predictions, because they have been proven wrong repeatedly." But, he said, "Just because they've been wrong in the past doesn't mean they'll be wrong in the future." 

Sabin said there's another blind spot in the argument that Simon had in his war against Ehrlich. It's that environmental progress since the 1960s -- the cleaner air, water and land that we all enjoy -- are here because of a combination of market forces and a pretty healthy nudge by outspoken environmentalists. "The market itself is shaped by politics and society," Sabin said. "And one of the reasons why it developed in the way it did to bring down air pollution, water pollution are all these environmental laws that were passed in the 1970s." 

Dismissing the idea that climate change is happening, Sabin said, goes against the very idea of human innovation, of problem-solving strategies that are at the heart of the free-market thinking that the late economist Simon, and the still-roaring talk show host Limbaugh, claim to espouse. 

Listen to the interview with Paul Sabin here.