By: Robert Walker, President, Population Institute
When it comes to the environment, George Will is a classic conservative. As evidenced by his latest column ("Doomsday Predictions Never Come Close"), his views never change. They remain forever frozen in time, along with his facts and figures. The polar icecaps and all the glaciers could melt, the oceans could rise by 20 feet, and he would still be saying, 'We're having some hot weather. Get over it."
Several weeks ago, Will created a minor stir when he breezily dismissed any possible connection between climate change and the massive drought that has been afflicting half the country. He scoffed at the idea that anything had fundamentally changed. "I grew up in central Illinois in a house without air conditioning. What is so unusual about this?"
Well, like Will, I grew up in central Illinois in a house without air conditioning, but I never recall the corn fields looking like they had been microwaved. Nor do I rely upon my childhood memories when weighing matters of scientific record. When the scientists say that the country has endured the hottest decade on record or that the drought is the worst in over 50 years, I don't beg to differ.
In his latest column, Will points to a 20th century decline in commodity prices as evidence that there's no such thing as "limits to growth." Citing Bjorn Lomborg, the environmental skeptic, he says that mercury prices fell by 90 percent in the last third of the 20th century. Conveniently, Will did not bother to look at what's happened to mercury prices in the 21st century: mercury prices have soared from $150 per flask in 2000 to $1,950 in 2011.
But to further buttress his argument, Will also cites a 1980 wager between Paul Ehrlich (author of the 1968 book, "The Population Bomb") and economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich wagered that resource scarcity over the next decade would boost the prices of five metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten). Will correctly notes that Ehrlich lost the bet, but as noted by Jeremy Grantham, the founder of GMO, one of the world's most successful investment firms, Simon would have the lost the bet if it had been extended another twenty years. Commodity prices for food, oil, metals, and minerals have soared in the past decade. The prices of basic food commodities have more than doubled. Most mineral and metal prices have tripled, and the price of oil has risen at an even brisker pace.
If George Will had written his column twelve years ago, it might have been deemed credible, but today it is just laughable. It's as if record high temperatures, record droughts, record flooding, and record commodity prices count for nothing.
George Will, like many other climate and science-deniers, is trapped in a preconceived vision of how the world works, and nothing will change his ossified convictions. Leading scientists may be warning that human activities are breaching "planetary boundaries" and threatening posterity and the planet, but the world according to Will never changes.
Unfortunately, particularly for the poorest of the world's urban poor, the world is changing. With wheat and soybean prices rising this summer to new heights, and wheat prices soaring once again, the world is dangerously close to its third food crisis in five years. Once again, the household budgets of those living on a $1 or $2 a day is being stretched to the breaking point.
In his latest quarterly investment letter for GMO, Grantham warns that:
"We are five years into a severe global food crisis that is very unlikely to go away. It will threaten poor countries with increased malnutrition and starvation and even collapse. Resource squabbles and waves of food-induced migration will threaten global stability and global growth. This threat is badly underestimated by almost everybody and all institutions with the possible exception of some military establishments."
George Will and other conservative intellectuals ignore such "doomsday" warnings, not because they lack supporting evidence, but because they do not comport with their long-held convictions. They should recall the wisdom of a more visionary conservative, Thomas Jefferson, who said:
"... laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times."
But George Will does not believe in keeping pace with the times... or the data. I guess it's a case of willful denial.