07/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Green or Growth: A False Choice Recycled by the Right

When extremists on the left or right express views on the environment, the noise is easy to filter as chatter in the nut-wing echo chamber. But a disturbing trend has developed in which mainstream right-of-center pundits are regressing on issues of environmental protection, and that is more difficult to dismiss.

The poster child for this childish behavior is George Will, who has a voice in the nation's most influential newspapers and on major cable channels. In the Washington Post this week, for example, Will writes that "reasonable dissent is impossible" on the issue of climate change due to the "grating smugness" of the left. His wrath was incurred by a statement in the New York Times that noted that in the late 1990s "it was possible to find global-warming skeptics among even the reasonable and informed."

I suspect that Will believes anybody who disagrees with him is gratingly smug, even when all evidence is overwhelmingly in the favor of his opponents. The accusation of smugness coming from pursed lips and a bow tie seems incongruous, but so be it. In any case, faithful skeptics like Will make two critical errors in thinking that: 1) the problems are not real, and 2) even if the problems were real, addressing the issues would destroy our economy. Let's look at each in turn.

Fallacy No. 1: Environmental Problems are a Creation of the Left

Somewhere along the way, the conservative party stopped believing in conservation. Those on the right now believe that concern for the environment is a plot by the left to promote socialism. They can only reach this conclusion by ignoring compelling evidence to the contrary.

Climate Change

Faithful skeptics take the unusual position that they know more than climatologists from 166 countries who have evaluated the data and concluded that global warming is real and caused by human activity. That the earth has gone through natural variations in climate is not unknown to these scientists, who have incorporated that fact into their analysis.

Note that with this approach of simply claiming expert knowledge we have finally discovered a cure for cancer. Let's have the right claim that they know more than oncologists who have studied malignancy and declare that cancer is not real. And magically, we will have no cancer, just as with such magic we have no climate change.

Global Amphibian Deaths

Since the 1970s, ecologists have documents a precipitous decline in amphibian populations worldwide. The right wing might want to jump in here and save the frogs by declaring that they know more than the world's most prominent herpetologists, and that the data should be dismissed as left-wing propaganda. Voila, the frogs are saved. But the faithful skeptics have to move fast because in some areas, scientists are seeing mortality reach 80 to 100 percent as chytridiomycosis spreads unchecked. In the last 20 years at least 168 species have gone extinct. We now document that another 2469 species are either declining rapidly or are past that point and now close to extinction.

Honey Bee Colony Collapse

Honey bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of all food crops in the United States, including such staples as nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables. The value of the 130 crops dependent on bees exceeds $15 billion annually. So we discover with some concern that some beekeepers started reporting in late 2006 losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. Scientists have not yet definitively determined the cause of the spreading Colony Collapse Disorder, but know that the problem has now been reported in 24 states. About one-third of all bees have been lost since the disease was discovered, although not all of those losses are due to CCD.

Bat Pandemics

A mysterious fungus is viciously attacking the bat population in the northeast United States. State biologists now believe that the offending white fungus might represent the greatest threat to wildlife in more than 100 years. You might think you do not care about bats, but if you like insects even less, the bat decline should cause alarm. Most bats eat their body weight in insects every night. So some bugs are celebrating the fact that the fungus has killed up to 1 million bats to date, and is spreading unchecked.

Habitat Loss

For a host of complex reasons, we are losing critical habitat at an accelerating pace. We are destroying 40 million acres of tropical forests every year. The earth is losing up to 50,000 species annually, a rate nearly 1000 times the natural background level of natural extinction. Along with those species and habitats we lose knowledge, medicines and critical ecosystems functions. More than half of all coral reefs are dead or dying. We now estimate that 70 percent of all reefs will disappear in the next fifty years, largely due to global warming. Why should you care? Coral reefs provide about $375 billion worth of economic and environmental services each year. About 500 million people live within just sixty miles of a coral reef, and benefit directly from the reefs' productivity and protection they provide from the ocean's wrath. The Great Barrier Reef alone supports about 8 percent of all of the world's fish species. You eat many of them. Perhaps not for long, though, because we have depleted 90% of the species in the ocean that supply us with food.
Exactly how many canaries have to die in the coal mine before the right wing takes notice that we have some issues?

Fallacy No. 2: Environmental Problems are Too Costly to Address

Ignoring the most obvious argument that environmental problems are too costly not to address, let us look at the false choice offered by the right: economic growth or environmental protection.

The next few centuries belong to the country smart enough to be the first to master green technologies and renewable energy. The false dichotomy between growth and the environment is an anachronism born from the failures of conservative thought. Conservatives believe that growth is only possible at the expense of the environment, and that any and all efforts to protect our resources impede growth. That philosophy is wrong on every count. Way back in the prehistoric times of 1988 as the Chief Environmental Officer at the Agency for International Developed I funded an effort to explore the economic incentives for conserving biological diversity. The results were published in a book authored by Jeff McNeely, who provided case study after case study that showed unambiguously that environmental protection was not only conducive to economic growth, but essential to it. We've known this now for 20 years, but the right keeps insisting on hiding from the facts.

Environmentalism is not the ideology of left wing socialists, but instead the true engine of all future economic growth. Just as the United States rose to greatness on the engine of industrialization, the world's next great superpower will come to dominate by advancing green technologies.

The false choice offered by the right is dangerous not only to the environment but to our national security. The next superpower will be the country that moves quickly to solar, wind and (sane) biofuel power, and finally to hydrogen. You have doubts? Consider the national security implications of moving successfully to a hydrogen economy free from the tyranny of foreign oil. The Middle East will become noting but another spot on the map, contributing no more than Tanzania or Lichtenstein to world affairs. Consider the benefits of clean energy from sun and wind giving life to factory and farms with local sources of power invulnerable to attacks on a national grid. Imagine a transportation sector that pollutes nothing but a few drops of water from each tailpipe. Imagine this as you contemplate the price of oil climbing back up to $140/barrel or more.

Opportunities abound. Currently the United States generates only 18% of its energy through the use of renewable technologies. If bacteria can be engineered to digest cellulose to produce the feedstock necessary for fuel production, biomass fuels could meet a significant portion of our energy needs. Spray-on solar cells are now in the laboratory. Wind turbines get better every year. Of course one big stumbling block remains battery technology, which is why the Obama Administration is wisely supporting research into energy storage.

The future belongs to those seeking to integrate green and growth. This is how our national interests will be secured. This is where jobs will be created. Several studies conclude that just doubling current wind energy capacity in the United States could create 150,000 new manufacturing jobs in 20 states. The United States should rightfully lead this charge, but only will if the faithful right wing skeptics adopt a more enlightened attitude appropriate to the 21st century and move away from the odd idea that any effort to discuss green growth is gratingly smug. Or the GOP could become irrelevant politically. I hope for the former but would settle for the latter.