The debate about global warming and its impacts on human life has been dominated by scientists, engineers and politicians and tends to be either too technical or overly emotional. For Brazil, a country that needs to grow to improve the living standards of its population, we should be suspicious of apocalyptic forecasts that do not take into account the costs of alternatives and support radical measures that are harmful for growth.
Ever since the industrial revolution, mankind has experienced periods of extreme pesimism regarding the exhaustion of natural resources and its impact on development. By the mid nineteenth century we worried about the scarcity of coal as well the disappearance of whales, whose oil was used on residential lightning, and the lossos they would bring to the economy. In 1972, the Club of Rome forecasted that all mineral resources would be exhausted by the end of the century. This was true mostly for oil and in tandem with the population explosion, would bring dreadful consequences for mankind.
These forecasts did not come true. People are not irrational and passive. They react to incentives. New coal mines were discovered and new fuels, kerosene and natural gas, were substitutes for whale oil. The high oil prices imposed by OPEC led its substitution by alternative sources, its expansion and exploration. The intensity of oil in world GDP today is less than half of what it was in 1970. In turn, it explains why the high prices since 2003 brought few concerns to the global economy. The birth rate decreased in the world and in Brazil. Progress, the increase in per capita income and change in habits increased the costs of raising a family. With the world population around 6.5 billions of people we may think that there are too many people. However, the whole population would fit in three U.S. sates: Texas, Arizona and New Mexico and each habitant would have more than 200m2 of land, more than double what New York residents have.
Nowadays, the apocalyptic forecasts are about global warming and its impacts on human life. The movie An Inconvenient Truth has dramatic forecasts for the next decade in the absence of controls against carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Cities could be submerged, millions would die of heat exhaustion, of malaria and other tropical disease, millions of species would disappear and so forth. The recommendation is the immediate adoption of the Kyoto protocol which cuts the carbon dioxide emissions by 5.2% by 2012 a level lower than that of 1995. The cuts will be done exclusively by developed countries.
The consensus is that the temperature that the world temperature is rising. Similarly, the consensus suggests that cyclical movements are behind this phenomenon, independent of human actions, and that greenhouse effects are triggered by the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The forecast is that if current trends persist, the average temperature in the world would rise 2.6 degrees Celsius by 2100. It is true that this increase would bring costs and problems but would also bring benefits. It would be hard to ski in the Alps but would be easier to practice horticulture in Siberia. The strictly scientific debate is faulty when there is no estimate on the value that is lost, the gains and alternative actions.
The economist Bjorn Lomborg argues that with its estimated cost of $180 billion per year, the Kyoto protocol is not the most intelligent way to handle global warming. In his view, targeted measures to handle the related problems related are cheaper and more efficient especially if we take into account that the actual costs of reducing one ton of carbon dioxide can reach $20 and is far superior than the $2 of benefits gained. Besides, as shown in the past, global warming is a continuous process and we have to take into account the fact the human beings are reactive. As a by-product of progress we can count on additional resources to build dams against floods, create energy savings alternatives to the current fuels, produce new vaccines and save the polar bears. This can be more effective than the mere prescription of freezing carbon dioxide and hence economic growth.
The trend in Brazil, regarding the media and the public opinion, is to take the apocalyptic forecasts as truths and claim as heresy the opposing opinions. However, the reality is very different. The environmental laws are very rigid yet we continue to deforest the Amazon. Similarly, we continue to pollute the Tiete river with contaminated sewage with the silent consent of the authorities. To build a dam to harness the hydroelectric potential of the country or a new road for better agricultural access is a hard task. These plans are subjected to all sorts of interruption and costs, stiff environmental legislation and the whole judicial system of Brazil. While we dream of more expensive alternative solutions, little is implemented and we lag behind.
In Victorian England as well as in the 20th century United States societal values prioritized progress. This same mentality is in vogue in today’s China. Brazil has a vocation for progress, as seen in our flag. In order to grow, countries like Brazil need to interfere and change the environment. It is easier for a rich country (than for a poor) to take care of the environment. What about using more reason and good sense rather than dogmas and emotions?
Originally published by Valor Economico and translated to English by RGE monitor.