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In going green, youthful idealism must be tempered with a strong dose of sober maturity

Over the weekend, young people around the world took to the streets in what was considered the largest climate rally in recent history. In Singapore, some 2,000 people gathered at Hong Lim Park for the Singapore Climate Rally, replete with a “die-in” and a series of talks on environmental issues.

Participants at the Singapore Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park on September 21, 2019.

Participants at the Singapore Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park on September 21, 2019.

Over the weekend, young people around the world took to the streets in what was considered the largest climate rally in recent history. In Singapore, some 2,000 people gathered at Hong Lim Park for the Singapore Climate Rally, replete with a “die-in” and a series of talks on environmental issues.

These social movements are largely inspiring, as they involve young people becoming more conscious of global problems and deciding to take charge. Youth have always been a driver of positive social change in history, but youthful idealism must always be tempered with a strong dose of sober maturity.

The desire to spread positive change, in this case for the environment, cannot simply be grounded on passion alone, but needs to be accompanied by a hard-nosed appreciation of research in the natural and social sciences. Emotion must be tempered with reason.

This is not to say that the youth activists behind these initiatives are ignorant. However, we must guard against unintended consequences that often occur when we rush into action when dealing with “wicked” problems that have no easy answers. The environment and global climate is one such complex system, with multiple variables acting in concert. There is no simple silver bullet that will cure climate ills.

Environmental activists around the world, for all their good intentions, have in the past, pursued actions that have led to numerous detrimental effects to the environment itself. It is in this spirit that I present a message of caution, which is evidenced in the following areas.

PLASTICS

In light of the problem of plastic waste clogging up the oceans, governments around the world have restricted the use of plastic products, most obviously plastic bags and straws. Environmental activists have also pressured companies to forego plastics and substitute them with alternatives.

While the end goal is worth pursuing, reducing plastic consumption isn’t the best means to that end. Plastic bags make up less than 0.8 per cent of the mass of plastic afloat in the world’s oceans, while straws would make up even less.

The bulk of plastics in oceans stem from inferior waste disposal and management in developing countries, who are responsible for most of the plastic waste. Specifically, a big part of all plastics floating in oceans today come from fisheries in developing, coastal nations; this waste includes fishing lines, buoys and disposal contraptions.

The Singapore Climate Rally on September 21, 2019, was replete with a “die-in” and a series of talks on environmental issues. Photo: Low Youjin/TODAY

An excessive focus on consumer behavior merely tinkers at the margins without a truly sustainable solution: Economic development for the poorest regions of the world, and better technology.

Denmark has long been a leader in environmental conservation. But even the Danish Ministry of Environment, in 2018, admitted the limits of restricting plastic products. Their study showed that for an organic cotton bags to be more environmentally friendly than plastic bags, it must be used 20,000 times, and a paper bag, 43 times. The smarter solution is simply to reuse a plastic bag to dispose of trash.

FOSSIL FUELS

What about fossil fuels? While reducing our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels is a worthy goal to pursue, one must be careful of the transition costs of doing so, especially for developing nations which cannot afford expensive renewables.

Billions of people around the world, trapped in poor countries, have no access to cheap energy. That means no electricity to keep warm, to cook and to live decently. They die from indoor air pollution due to energy poverty. Enforcing a reduction of fossil fuels would further worsen their plight.

Renewable energy still makes up a small proportion of the world’s energy output, and before it comes widely cost-effective, fossil fuels are still the best bet for the growth prospects of poor nations. We should not prolong poverty simply because first-world environmental activists can afford renewables.

Environmental activists have unfortunately neglected the importance of economic innovation in achieving sustainability. Economic innovations help decouple our consumption and their environmental effects, that is, allowing us to consume more, but reduce our environmental footprint at the same time.

One such example that has sadly been castigated by activists is the innovation of fracking, which has increased energy output at the same time as it reduces our dependence on dirtier coal. In fact, concerning energy policy, there is good news: The International Energy Agency in 2016 found that CO2 emissions were flat for the third straight year even while the global economy grew.

WHAT ABOUT THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE?

One should not deny that climate change is taking place. It is a serious problem to pay attention to, but at the same time, we should have a sense of proportion.

Blaming extreme weather events on climate change, for instance, is far out of proportion. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on hurricanes said that there have been “no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century”, suggesting that the incidence of extreme weather is far less than what activists have made it seem.  

Additionally, what is important is not just the incidence of extreme weather events, but their human impact. On this note, research by Indur Goklany has shown that human mortality by extreme weather events has fallen by 98 per cent over the past century, a testament to the power of human innovation in creating protective technologies to shield us from extreme weather.

Human innovation is critical to solving environmental problems, and in fact, the world’s major challenges. The late American business professor Julian Simon had showed that gloomy predictions of resource depletion miss out a critical fact of human beings: They are highly creative.

This innovation capacity is the ultimate resource that will never run out given the right conditions to flourish. And for Simon, it is liberal democracy, market-based capitalism, the rule of law, and limited government.

The gradual extension of market-created prosperity has allowed people to make the natural environment a more hospitable place. The environmental Kuznets curve predicts that while developing countries first pollute a lot, growth improves the environment after a certain point.

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Andrew McAfee, this is because “we got better at combining technological progress with capitalism to satisfy human wants and needs”.

A great piece of evidence in favour of this is the fact that despite the tremendous economic growth of the past 60 years, critical commodities became more abundant.

This is based on a new measure, based on the principles of Julian Simon, spanning 1980 and 2017, showing that “resource availability increased at a compounded annual growth rate of 4.32 percent, meaning Earth was 379.6 percent more abundant in 2017 than it was in 1980”.

History shows that human innovation flourishes best when they are free from burdensome restraints. Yet, most climate activists condemn capitalism. Canadian author Naomi Klein said pointedly that “taking climate change seriously decimates the ‘entire neoliberal project’”, and the Guardian’s economics and social policy columnist wrote that “ending climate change requires ending capitalism”.

I sure hope that the Singapore Government takes a pragmatic approach in the face of extreme progressive ideologues like these. We cannot be held hostage by ideology but must look at what works.

Market-tested innovations are improving the environment around the world. Singaporean entrepreneurs are already testing new green technologies that promise to make Singapore a leader of green innovation. I hope those who care about climate change here express support for these bottom-up initiatives.

 

About the author:

Bryan Cheang is Director of the Adam Smith Center, a pro-competition, non-profit organisation in Singapore.

Related topics

climate change extreme weather environment business and finance economy

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