Anti-climate-change marchers took to the streets of Manhattan, N.Y., in the hundreds of thousands over the weekend to demand international action to fight global warming.
The throng would have better advised to parade in downtown Beijing, assuming the Politburo wouldn’t have called out the infantry.
China is the locus of the alleged crime against the planet that is carbon emissions, yet the marchers staged their event in the United States, where prior to last year emissions had been declining (thanks, in part, to the natural-gas revolution, which oddly didn’t get much love from the climate marchers).
China is responsible for 27 percent of carbon emissions, more than any other country, and uses as much coal as the rest of the world. Since 1990, it has matched the U.S. in cumulative carbon emissions. China is representative of a developing world that is taking the global lead on emissions, at nearly 60 percent of the total.
There are many things we should be attempting to persuade China to stop doing: Arbitrarily ruling over its own people. Imprisoning and torturing dissidents. Occupying Tibet. Making aggressive territorial claims in its region.
Compared with all of these, availing itself of the wonders of the industrial economy is welcome. And if we can’t stop China from doing these other things — self-evidently violations of human rights or international norms — how are we going to keep it from continuing to ramp up its economic growth, as any rational society would?
The answer is that we almost certainly aren’t. Anti-global-warming activism consists of symbolic protests against a highly complex planetary phenomenon we understand poorly and don’t control.
The unpredicted pause in the rise in global temperature since the late 1990s is so embarrassing to climate activists, who are filled with a fiery certitude about the “science,” that it goes unmentioned (the climate marchers could have chanted, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Where’d climate change go?”). In their fevered urgency, they give off the sense that they are desperate to save the planet before it might become evident that it doesn’t need saving.
Our direct influence on global warming is highly limited, even if you assume the science is completely settled. As a country, we could end our emissions entirely, and it would barely cause a blip in the cumulative carbon buildup in the atmosphere.
There are causes to which the climate marchers could devote themselves that would have an immediate positive effect on human welfare: from promoting clean water in the Third World to agitating for cures to all manner of diseases. None of this, though, is as alluring as anti-industrial apocalypticism.
As writer Oren Cass has noted, today’s climate activists resemble the unilateral nuclear-disarmament movement of the 1980s, which also cloaked “plainly ineffectual policies in the language of moral necessity.” We could have eliminated all of our nuclear weapons — as we were urged to do by protesters who insisted it was necessary to saving the planet — and it wouldn’t have moved the Soviets to do the same; in fact, it would have delighted them.
The same dynamic is at work today. The U.N. is holding a warm-up confab for the push for a new international treaty in New York this week. It is blighted only by the fact that the world’s top emitters aren’t participating. They surely understand that the anti-global-warming movement threatens what the developing world is doing to enrich itself.
The climate march in Manhattan drew representatives from around the world. But it is doubtful that many or any of them live on $1 a day. These are the desperately poor people from developing countries whose welfare stands to gain immensely from industrial development.
They know what it means to fight for survival — in a real sense, not in an airy metaphor about the planet — and if the marchers were to have their way, they would never know anything else.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.