Make Way for Big Environment

By Roger Bate

We're all used to phrases like big government and big business, but what about big environment? The bearded, sandalwearing environmentalist of the past is being replaced by the clean-shaven, smooth-talking ideologue of today. Whatever the name, the environmental movement has big budgets, employing public relations giants to regularly coordinate glossy green press conferences and media stunts. And when it comes to energy conservation, they hardly practice what they preach.

I recently returned from holidaying in Trinidad, which, coincidentally, was the venue chosen by scientists from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to discuss "Aviation and the Global Atmosphere." The scientists' spokesman, Sir John Houghton, has been demanding a tax on aviation to reduce the demand for international travel, which is adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The fact that there are no climate researchers based in the Caribbean, or that more fuel would have been used getting to Trinidad than to London or the East Coast of America (where most of the researchers are based), seemed to have escaped the organizers of this meeting. What obviously didn't was that the weather was a lot nicer in Trinidad than in London or Boston. That U.N. bureaucrats choose to spend other peoples' money on lavish junkets is bad enough, but the hypocrisy of demanding policies that will make people pay even more for their own holidays and the green elite's trips is simply astounding.

Environmentally motivated gasoline and heating fuel taxes in the U.K. (and elsewhere in Europe) have already harmed the poor and pensioners, and Chancellor Gordon Brown is likely to use the environment as an excuse when he raises them further in today's budget. Aviation tax hikes will just be the next elitist policy to come from the greens.

At the same time multinational corporations, including some oil companies, are clamoring to show their concern and take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists are suspicious of certainty. To them, present knowledge is a working hypothesis ready to be overturned by new discovery. But business flounders in uncertainty, so when the definitive statement on man-made warming was made by the U.N. climate change body, big business swung into action on greenhouse emissions. The first step for them was to change their rhetoric, and for that they turned to environmentalists.

Leaked internal memoranda from the Washington-based eco-pressure group National Environmental Trust (NET) claim credit for opinion articles on climate change apparently written by Enron Corp. CEO Ken Lay. From Houston, Enron spokesperson Carol Hensley confirmed NET's involvement in the Lay story, which was placed in several newspapers by Knight-Ridder. But industry is not alone in calling on NET to write or edit its speeches in order to appease the green movement. U.K. Environment Minister Michael Meacher readily acknowledges NET's help, as did his Conservative predecessor, John Gummer, whose article admonishing energy-profligate American business (the Washington Post, Dec. 2, 1997) was among NET's claimed "successes."

The danger of such collaboration is obvious. Although major U.S. business executives and U.K. government ministers are seemingly disparate interests, their rhetoric is strikingly similar, which looks like a consensus of informed opinion to the media. In fact, no such consensus exists.

Last December world leaders received a letter signed by over 500 scientists and physicians who argued against limiting energy use to control greenhouse gas emissions. The signatures, which now number nearly 1,000, were collected by two not-for-profit groups-the Washington-based Advancement for Sound Science Coalition and the Cambridge-based European Science and Environment Forum. Specifically, the signatories, who come from 20 countries, urge world leaders not to support the accord from last December's U.N. Climate Conference in Kyoto, Japan. They recommend that "the world's governments defer taking action on a climate change protocol until the science shows limiting greenhouse gas emissions will benefit, not harm, the global environment and public health."

Many scientists have criticized the U.N. climate report on which the accord was based. Frederick Seitz, former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, even called it the most "disturbing corruption of the peer review process" that he had seen in 60 years of professional life. Now even Joyce Penner, designer of the climate model on which the U.N. report was based, seems to be recanting. In a recent press release from a paper she gave in December to the American Geophysical Union, she seems to have defected, stating that "contrary to conventional wisdom, new computer modeling from the University of Michigan [where she now works] suggests that global warming might not be the product of human activity." Twenty months ago, Tim Wirth, then U.S. undersecretary of state, told the U.N. that "the science is settled." Now that the green movement has the protocol it wanted, it turns out that warming, according to Ms. Penner, "may simply be due to natural variability" after all.

But such uncertainty won't stop big environment. With the debate all but extinguished, regulations and taxes proposed with the aim of helping the environment (whether or not they have a hope of succeeding) will inevitably be biased toward protecting the large business and political interests involved in the collaborative process. Small businesses, the poor and the world's consumers-groups that are inevitably less well-organized at placing news stories and at lobbying-don't stand a chance.

This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe 17 March 1998

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