July 14, 2011

The Supreme Court and “civil heresy”

By The Supreme Court and “civil heresy”

Author:  Damien M. Schiff

The Supreme Court decided a few weeks ago in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut that there is no federal common law tort of public nuisance based on greenhouse gas emissions.  In writing about the decision, I noted that the majority opinion has a gratuitous footnote which states that the Court's discussion of EPA’s decision to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act should not be interpreted as the Court’s endorsement of global warming.  The footnote cited to an article published a few years ago from the New York Times MagazineI’ve just finished reading the article, which is a mini-review of the personality and work of Freeman Dyson, a prominent English-born American physicist.

I was curious to read the article because I wanted to know why, out of the many anti-global-warming pieces out there, the Court would choose to cite to this one.  Having read the article, it seems to me that Dyson is not so much a global warming skeptic as he is a doubter of Deep Ecology.

One of Dyson’s more significant surmises is that a warming climate could be forestalling a new ice age. Is he wrong? No one can say for sure. Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.

Dyson also believes, quite reasonably and a la Bjorn Lomborg, that, if global warming is happening, then there are much more cost-effective means of dealing with the harms associated with global warming than by drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Dyson also points out that the modern Green movement is essentially a luxury-thought-experiment.

“There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says. (“Many of these people are my friends,” he will also tell you.) To Dyson, “the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.” That said, Dyson sees coal as the interim kindling of progress. In “roughly 50 years,” he predicts, solar energy will become cheap and abundant, and “there are many good reasons for preferring it to coal.”

Dyson is probably most known in global warming circles for his suggestion that the best way to combat excessive carbon dioxide is to plant about a trillion trees (which he believes is quite feasible), or to bioengineer super-CO2-consuming trees.  These solutions may appear far-fetched, but probably not nearly as far-fetched as the expectations of many environmentalists that countries such as India and China will willingly and drastically reduce their carbon dioxide outputs.

In any event, I suspect that the Court cited to Dyson not because he is a global warming skeptic but rather because he is a dissenter from the current administration’s policy approach to global warming, i.e., significant Clean Air Act regulation of American industry.

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