Progressing Backwardj

Editor’s note: This article first appeared through the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited. This is one of many coming articles from The Center for Vision & Values dealing with the topic of our April 15-16 conference on "The Progressives." Click here for information.

Some high-profile "climate-change" alarmists have been backtracking following recent revelations of significant errors and outright fraud involving the so-called scientific global-warming "consensus." The latest comes from Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, who is now encouraging the faithful to replace "global warming" with the more ambiguous "global weirding." In addition to the crumbling scientific case, Freidman and fellow warmists are bucking the headwinds of public opinion: Pew Research found that people ranked global warming dead last among their top national priorities.

Notwithstanding the increasing levels of scientific doubt, Friedman himself is still quite convinced that "the warming that humans are doing is irreversible and potentially catastrophic," and urges policymakers to "buy some insurance—by investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and mass transit—because this insurance will also actually make us richer and more secure."

Of course, by "investment" Friedman actually means government spending. Yet, if the opportunities are so manifest, why wouldn’t private citizens and businesses invest their own capital? Perhaps because Friedman’s nostrums actually involve outdated technologies that have been tried repeatedly and found to make us the opposite of "richer and more secure."

Most notably, in the late 1970s President Jimmy Carter poured billions into wind, solar, and biodiesel, offering massive subsidies for "clean energy" and vowing that America would never import more oil than it did then.

A decade earlier, enthusiasts believed that electric cars and high-tech batteries were on the threshold of revolutionizing our transportation system.

Columnist James Kilpatrick of the Detroit Free Press wrote in 1967 that "[C]ompanies are searching for a billion-dollar breakthrough in battery design. General Dynamics is working on a zinc-air cell battery. Ford is actively interested in a sodium-sulfur cell. Gulton Industries and General Motors are tinkering with lithium … All the activity is bound to pay off probably within the next five years."

More recently, the big push has been for mass transit (or "light rail") as a "new" form of transportation. But as the economist Thomas Sowell explains in his latest book, "Intellectuals and Society," this is a fantasy as well:
‘Light rail’ has become the fashionable term used by mass transit advocates for things that are very much like what were once called trolleys or street cars, and which were once common in hundreds of American cities. Trolleys were replaced by buses in almost all those cities—for a reason. But now the inconveniences and inefficiencies of trolleys vanish into thin air when they are presented as that new-sounding thing called ‘light rail,’ whose prospective wonders can be described in glowing terms by city planners and other advocates, secure against experience rearing its ugly head through memories or histories of the decline and fall of the trolley car.

Likewise, there’s nothing new or groundbreaking in the stimulus-driven spending on mass transit, light rail, and other "new" forms of transportation. As with the new/old alternative energy fads, if an investment case could be had for public transportation, then it wouldn’t be necessary for taxpayers to subsidize more than 80 percent of its operating expenses.

At some point, we may well replace coal and oil with some cheaper and easier technology, but in the meantime, oil is still much cheaper than bottled water and coal still provides half of our domestic energy. On the other hand, if one really does believe that man-made climate change is an impending disaster worthy of dismantling our economy, then it may be rational to argue for a shutdown of oil, coal, and other industries.

But don’t make the case that these are profitable investments; the only direction we’re progressing is backwards.

— Jarrett Skorup is a 2009 graduate of Grove City College and former student fellow at The Center for Vision & Values. He is the research associate for online engagement for Michigan Capitol Confidential at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Centers are properly cited. Mr. Skorup can be reached at [email protected].