George Orwell once noted that people who are capable of being perfectly objective about sea urchins or the square root of 2 become schizophrenic when asked to consider the sources of their own income.
I thought of this remark last week while taking part in a discussion with former Colorado governor Richard Lamm about, among other things, global warming. Lamm is genuinely interested in ideas, and he says what he thinks: two characteristics that, as another participant put it to me afterwards, makes you wonder how he ever got elected to anything.
In regard to global warming, Lamm laid out what has become the consensus view among scientists who study the issue: that the Earth is getting warmer, that a primary cause of this warming is greenhouse gases produced by human activity, and that if nothing is done to deal with the problem this warming will produce environmental effects that will be somewhere between moderately severe and indescribably catastrophic.
Predictably, the consensus view has been subjected to ferocious criticism from all sorts of powerful economic interests. This was predictable because, if the current consensus is anywhere close to being right, some fairly radical steps need to be taken immediately. These are steps that would require basic changes in the way people in the developed world in general, and America in particular, live their lives.
Indeed, there’s one thing on which American business and labor can agree: Action taken to slow down the rate of growth in our emission of greenhouse gases should not also slow economic growth. Naturally this view has been embraced by the Bush administration, which keeps repeating the mantra that decisions about how to deal with global warming must be based on “sound science.”
Invoking “sound science” is a code for the argument that we should do nothing until there’s no longer any doubt regarding the extent to which man-made pollution is contributing to global warming. Unfortunately, if the current consensus is correct, then the nature of global warming is such that waiting until Exxon and the AFL-CIO no longer have any doubts about the matter means waiting until it will be impossible to do anything to avert the worst effects the heating of the Earth will cause.
This brings us back to Orwell’s remark. The average American produces 18 times more greenhouse gases than the average Indian, which is another way of saying that if the peoples of the developing world were affluent enough to indulge in the American way of life this would cause a global apocalypse _ assuming, again, that the current scientific consensus is correct.
In other words, one of the primary sources of our own income is that we’re consuming a grossly unfair percentage of what has become the world’s most crucial scarce resource: low-carbon air (this in turn assumes that the wellbeing of Indians is as important as that of Americans: an idea all of us accept in theory and reject in practice).
The main reason the current scientific consensus regarding global warming has had almost no impact on American life or politics is that, in the most basic sense, this view entails a conclusion that is fundamentally un-American: that under certain circumstances economic growth and increasing affluence can have a net effect that is not merely negative, but actually catastrophic.
For many people this idea is literally unthinkable. To them (to us?) the sentence “our way of life is wrong” is like the sentence “night is day.” Both are nonsense on their face. Unfortunately, something can strike us as nonsense on its face and still be true.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)