Western Guilt, Again


WASHINGTON—For half a century, Western guilt made the lives of the poor even worse by propping up despots and corrupt bureaucracies through foreign aid. A new form of Western guilt, environmental fundamentalism, is making the lives of the poor even worse in Mexico after triggering a huge rise in the price of corn—the chief component of the tortilla—thanks to a government-induced increase in the demand for ethanol in the United States.

This constitutes poignant evidence that the drive for carbon reduction can be costly. And not just for the poor: The majority of European countries, who attacked the United States savagely when it refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, will not meet their goals in terms of reducing emissions by 2012 because they have discovered what a high school student could have told them: Life is one constant trade-off. Meeting the Kyoto goals would mean sacrificing the economic well-being of many Europeans at a time when fewer and fewer people are sustaining an ever-growing number of retired citizens.

Environmental fundamentalism has made it a sacrilege to even raise a brow at some of the premises of those who predict an apocalypse if massive carbon reductions are not made mandatory. Even though a number of scientists indicate that global warming is not as bad as is generally assumed and that historical precedent points to recurring patterns, it is now very hard to argue that a much more thorough debate is needed before any drastic action is taken and that governments need to carefully weigh the consequences of the mandatory caps that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is proposing.

Scientists are good at making bad predictions. In 1972, The Club of Rome famously drew attention to the fact that the known reserves of oil would last only 30 years and that economic growth was doomed because the world was running out of raw materials. However, in the last 50 years the consumption of various raw materials has risen by a factor of between 2 and 10. The known reserves of oil have kept going up—and now there is even talk of oil possibly being a renewable resource.

In the 1960s, it was fashionable to predict that, at the going trend, the total world population would soon exceed the capacity to produce food. And yet, in the last half-century developing countries have seen their agricultural output rise by more than 50 percent.

Now the guilty minds of the West are telling everyone that if we sacrifice 1 percent of the world's GDP every year, about $500 billion, we will save the planet in the next few decades. The same body that sponsored the recent IPCC report on the environment, the U.N., told us a few years ago that if the rich gave out $75 billion to underdeveloped countries annually, poverty would be extinct before long. These two competing forms of guilt are mutually—and absurdly—exclusive. Implemented together, they would amount to making the world poorer in order to make it cleaner, so that the rich could continue to have a planet in which to send unproductive money to the poor so that the poor could continue to pollute the Earth because they will lack the wealth to invest in clean energy—and therefore end up extinguishing the planet anyway.

It gets so absurd that, according to Bjorn Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, if we take into account various scientific estimates, the cost of global warming in the next 100 years would be pretty much the same as the cost of implementing Kyoto, which would have a very small effect on greenhouse gases anyway.

Even a perfunctory look at the evidence shows that many of the sweeping statements reported in the press and parroted by bien pensant politicians are misleading. For instance, the total ice mass in Antarctica is actually rising, not falling, and the buildup of atmospheric methane, a huge greenhouse contributor, has stopped.

Thinking about and discussing global warming is a good thing. (To think that a quarter of a century ago people were discussing global cooling!) Investing in clean energy can be a good thing, too. But creating a psychosis based on research that is in its infancy and opting for measures that could provoke an economic catastrophe for people in whose name we are trying to save the planet may be the worst case of friendly fire ever to come from Western guilt.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

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