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Wealth And Global Warming

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 21, 2007

Our piece, Reducing Carbon Vs. Increasing Wealth, dealt with the thesis of Dr. Bjorn Lomborg that global warming, though real, cannot be solved by efforts to reduce carbon output. Instead, he argued, the wisest course is to focus on increasing wealth so that we are better able to deal with climate change. For example, Dr. Lomborg pointed this out:

…the weather matters a lot less than how people respond to it. Just because there are hotter summers in New York doesn’t mean that more people die — in fact, just the reverse has occurred. Researchers led by Robert Davis, a climatologist at the University of Virginia, concluded that the number of heat-related deaths in New York in the 1990s was only a third as high as in the 1960s. The main reason is simple, and evident as you as walk into the Bridge Cafe on a warm afternoon: air-conditioning.

Now The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman also find the idea of reducing carbon output hopeless:

In the last few weeks, I happened to visit Doha and Dalian, and I must say: I was stunned.

Before explaining why, let me acknowledge that chances are you’ve not visited Doha or Dalian recently. Indeed, it may be — I presume nothing — that you have never heard of either city. Doha is the capital of Qatar, a tiny state east of Saudi Arabia. Dalian is in northeast China and is one of China’s Silicon Valleys because of its proliferation of software parks and its dynamic, techie mayor, Xia Deren. What was stunning is that I hadn’t been to either city for more than three years, and I barely recognized either one.

In Doha, since I was last there, a skyline that looks like a mini-Manhattan has sprouted from the desert. Whatever construction cranes are not in China must be in Doha today. This once sleepy harbor now has a profile of skyscrapers, thanks to a huge injection of oil and gas revenues. Dalian, with six million people, already had a mini-Manhattan when I was last here. It seems to have grown two more since — including a gleaming new convention complex built on a man-made peninsula.

But this, alas, is not a travel column. It’s an energy column. If you want to know why I remain a climate skeptic — not a skeptic about climate change, but a skeptic that we’re going to be able to mitigate it — it’s partly because of Doha and Dalian. Can you imagine how much energy all these new skyscrapers in just two cities you’ve never heard of are going to consume and how much CO2 they are going to emit?

Beside this enormous growth in developing countries, what effect can our efforts to reduce carbon footprints possibly have:

Hey, I’m really glad you switched to long-lasting compact fluorescent light bulbs in your house. But the growth in Doha and Dalian ate all your energy savings for breakfast. I’m glad you bought a hybrid car. But Doha and Dalian devoured that before noon. I am glad that the U.S. Congress is debating whether to bring U.S. auto mileage requirements up to European levels by 2020. Doha and Dalian will have those gains for lunch — maybe just the first course.

I’m glad that solar and wind power are “soaring” toward 2 percent of U.S. energy generation, but Doha and Dalian will devour all those gains for dinner. I am thrilled that you are now doing the “20 green things” suggested by your favorite American magazine. Doha and Dalian will snack on them all, like popcorn before bedtime.

We should stop kidding ourselves. In the end we are going to need a breakthrough in energy technology:

…we’re fooling ourselves. There is no green revolution, or, if there is, the counter-revolution is trumping it at every turn. Without a transformational technological breakthrough in the energy space, all of the incremental gains we’re making will be devoured by the exponential growth of all the new and old “Americans.”

By "Americans" he means people in developing countries all over the world that are now becoming affluent enough to use energy as Americans have for years.

His call for a "technological breakthrough" seems to us pretty much like a call to focus on wealth so as to fund the technological research that can really solve this problem.

Smart people around the world are starting to realize that a focus on the carbon footprint of vegetables is a marketing gimmick, a distraction from the serious work at hand.

You can read the entire column here.

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