Global Warming – Then Versus Now

The perils of climate change were first introduced to the world in 1968.  It was then that the renown Stanford Research Institute (SRI) published its report, called Sources, Abundance, and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Polluters, warning everyone that a steady increase in levels of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere were unnaturally warming the Earth.   

Yet, nine years passed before the now-oft-used term “global warming” appeared in any academic literature and another 20 years went by before Congress heard from the experts that worldwide temperatures were increasing, polar ice caps were melting and sea levels had risen about half a foot since sometime in the 1800’s.  In California, home of the shrillest of the shrill advocacy to curb global-warming – and only after the abysmal failure of the latest environmental fad (“smart growth”) – it took lawmakers nearly half a century to act.

What were environmentalists, lawmakers and other political leaders – the same folks who endlessly tell us that global warming is the greatest existential threat to the planet since the proliferation of nuclear weapons – doing all that time?  

Indeed, the late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s, when the SRI report was first published, represented the most thorough, enlightened environmental thinking ever, said the advocates and pundits.  That’s when the nation, California especially, was worried about urban sprawl, coastal land protection and endangered species preservation. It was then that the most sweeping environmental-protection laws ever were enacted – the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and, stateside, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The federal Clean Water Act became law in 1972, shortly after California began regulating water.

Also, mindful that increases of carbon-dioxide in the air was bad – and with the vehicle population in California growing like topsy – it was during this period the state began setting auto-emission standards and, by law, it systematically removed lead from gasoline.  Time was clearly running out on the use fossil fuels for transportation and California’s love affair with them was coming to an end.

(Advocates wanted energy reforms as well, but they didn’t come until much later.  Still, solar mandates and those imposing the adoption of renewable sources did finally come to California and will have a direct impact on the state economy.  For example, legislation like Senate Bill 100 – which requires the state to operate on 100 percent renewable energy resources by the year 2045 – will affect business and the state’s competitiveness.  Incidently, debate over the legislation failed to include benchmarks or convincing evidence that following the law was possible.)

Those were all economically wrenching changes the nation was forced to adopt in the name of environmental protection.  Commerce had to adjust to this new regime and here in California, for the most part, it did. There were new costs to businesses and new costs to consumers, but all were eventually absorbed.

Why global warming wasn’t managed at the same time isn’t known.  Surely, the data existed. The needed advocacy was in place and seemed to be accompanied by the necessary political will, even if it was reluctant.  Of course, businesses then as they do now would resist the mitigation called for by global-warming reform if it had too great an impact on the national (and global) economy – its costs would have to be few and reasonable.  And, to its beneficiaries – people and polar bears – the reforms would have to deliver true relief.

Yet, nothing happened.  Is it possible that the players involved weren’t ready to take on something as large and sweeping as global warming?  Was it possible that growth control, oppressive land-use regulation and limiting immigration had to play themselves out first?  Or, did a state like California have to go through an energy crisis (as it did in the late ‘90’s)? Or, did it have to suffer from a sustained drought (as it did in the early part of the current century, after years of watching precious water resources wash out to sea)?  Or, did it have to transform (however unsuccessfully) single-occupancy vehicle trips into rail passage (both light and high-speed)? Or, did environmentalists and their pals in Congress and the state Legislature want all of these cataclysms to occur simultaneously forcing business to choose “death by a thousand cuts” as the optimum way to go?

Whatever the reason, if you’re a true environmentalist not taking up global warming during the ‘70’s was probably an opportunity missed.  For a while back then, it seemed like the environmental zeitgeist was going to prevail forever, no matter what the cost. Now, happily, there is at least greater awareness of environmental extremism and its economic impacts.

If you were concerned about the national and California economies then – and their corresponding growth rates – you must have been somewhat relieved, albeit temporarily, that nothing worse was done.  (Of course, since then subsequent legislation, regulation and general policy-making has thwarted efforts to minimize the environmental mitigation impacts – including those that can be tied to global warming – on business and consumers.)  Could it have been the initial successes the environmental community was having in the early ‘70’s – and their effect on both the national and state economies – put the kybosh on the advancement of global-warming mitigation measures?

Maybe.  Nevertheless, today at least two key questions remain:  If concerns over the impact of global warming on the economy prevailed then, what’s changed?  And, why are we going through all of these (silly) climate-change theatrics now?

Timothy L. Coyle is a consultant specializing in housing issues.