Dear Senator Grassley,
Thank you again for inviting me to present testimony at the Senate Budget Committee’s March 1, 2023 hearing “Rising Seas, Rising Costs: Climate Change and the Economic Risks to Coastal Communities.” This letter responds to the three questions posed in your letter of March 1.
Dr. Lewis, your organization has catalogued a rich history of eco-alarmist predictions—many coming from those in government and science—over the last 50 years. The problem with these predictions is that they all turned out to be wrong. From the position of an observer, it seems like the goal posts are always moving. Why do these predictions continually miss the mark?
Apocalyptic predictions continually miss the mark for various reasons. Underestimating natural variability partly explains the global cooling scare of the 1970s. Some highly-credentialed scientists feared a return to ice-age conditions, potentially culminating in famine, war, and civilizational collapse due to short-term fluctuations, such as 0.1-0.2°C per decade decline in Northern Hemisphere temperatures during 1950-1975, and a 12 percent decline in winter ice and snow cover in 1971. The Great Pacific Climate Shift of 1976—a change from the negative (cold) phase to the positive (warm) phase of a newly discovered ocean cycle, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation—reversed the cooling trend, ending ice age fears.
Similarly, some scientists (and many activists) feared the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season presaged a new period of increasingly frequent and severe storms. Instead, the U.S. experienced a ten-year (2006-2016) “drought” in major (category 3-5) hurricane strikes—the longest such period since 1900 in the instrumental record.
The root error of most apocalyptic predictions, however, is the age-old Malthusian failure to appreciate what the late Julian Simon called the “ultimate resource” of human ingenuity and the “master resource” of commercial energy. There is no limit to what the human mind can discover and invent, and commercial energy puts superhuman power at the beck and call of ordinary people. Consequently, Simon argued, as long as governments protect individual liberty and economic freedom, population growth will not lead to hunger, resource depletion, and environmental degradation, as Paul Ehrlich and other doomsayers claimed. Rather, people will produce more ideas about how to solve problems, and as productivity and efficiency improves, resources will become more abundant. Quality of life will improve, including environmental quality.
The following excerpts from Simon express concisely what eco-pessimists ignore, misunderstand, or disparage:
“Adding more people causes problems. But people are also the means to solve these problems. The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge; the brakes are our lack of imagination and unsound social regulations of these activities. Theultimate resource is people—especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty—who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefits, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well.”
– Julian Simon, “Introduction,” The State of Humanity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell), p. 27.
“The world’s problem is not too many people, but a lack of political and economic freedom.”
–Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, N.Y.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 11.
“Discoveries, like resources, may well be infinite: the more we discover, the more we are able to discover.”
– Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, p. 82.
“Energy is the master resource, because energy enables us to convert one material into another. As natural scientists continue to learn more about the transformation of materials from one form to another with the aid of energy, energy will be even more important….
For example, low energy costs would enable people to create enormous quantities of useful land. The cost of energy is the prime reason that water desalination now is too expensive for general use; reduction in energy cost would make water desalination feasible, and irrigated farming would follow in many areas that are now deserts. And if energy were much cheaper, it would be feasible to transport sweet water from areas of surplus to arid areas far away. Another example: If energy costs were low enough, all kinds of raw materials could be mined from the sea.”
– Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, p. 162.
Simon’s hopeful view is borne out by all major indicators of human well-being. As noted in my written testimony, the past 50 years—roughly the Age of Global Warming—have seen dramatic improvements in global life expectancy, per capita income, food security, crop yields, and various health metrics. In the U.S., increases in population, GDP, vehicle miles traveled, and energy consumption have coincided with large reductions in air pollutant emissions and concentrations.
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