Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“The Paris Accords Amidst Legions of Canute’s Knights”
April 17, 2017
“Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor wet my clothes or body of your Lord.”
King Canute’s order to the tide
Henry of Huntingdon (1080-1160)
Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon
The apocryphal King Canute placed his throne on the beach to demonstrate the fact that the power of kings was subservient to that of God. This is a message yet to be learned by those who believe that man can control the temperatures of earth – that man is more powerful than nature.
“Denier” is what “climate change absolutists” call those who, like me, acknowledge the fact of climate change and that man has played a significant part, but are skeptical that the precise magnitude of man’s effect is determinable, let alone dominant. “Denier” is the term used by those who profess moral and intellectual superiority to those they condemn as being in the pay of fossil-fuel lobbyists, or as being too stupid to understand what they claim is undeniable. “Denier” is what we are called, we who believe in evolution – that adaptability is key to survival – by those who, like Canute’s entourage, believe that man can compel the tide not to rise.
No reasonable person doubts man’s impact on the environment. He has dammed rivers, so that lands might be cultivated. He has developed energy sources, so that we might be comfortable in winter and summer. He has broken laws of gravity, so that we might travel through air and through space. He has built cities where marshes and virginal forests once stood, so that we might enrich our lives, form societies, educate our youth, finance our businesses, create employment, and erect museums and symphonies to exhibit the art we have created. We know we have had an impact. We also know all living things are interdependent. When one species becomes extinct, others must adapt or die; for change is a permanent feature of life.
Nations, like species, develop unevenly. With species, the ability to adjust to change is crucial. Among nations, survival is tied to liberty. Free men, living under the rule of law and with the prospect of private profit, are more willing to take risks, thus more likely to enjoy the fruits of creativity, ingenuity, perseverance and hard work. A victim and a beneficiary of the wealth created has been the natural world. We have exploited our resources, but we have allowed people to live with clean water and air.
Environmental extremists attack those who extract resources that help all, but they rarely acknowledge the benefits that industry and wealth have brought. When oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, the woods of New England towns (like the one in New Hampshire where I grew up) were largely denuded, with trees used for heat, cooking and construction. Wood charcoal was used to make steel, before coal was first used around 1875. New York apartments ceased being heated by coal before the EPA was created. It has hard to imagine how we would live had fossil fuels not been discovered. We may rue the damage they have caused, but without them our lives would be absent comforts we take for granted; nor would we have the moneys they have generated, which have helped conserve our rivers, forests, mountains and beaches.
Government is important, in terms of guaranteeing basic rights, including the protection of private property and upholding the law. Government ensures the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe. But it is the private sector that has given us our most important advancements. Governments should encourage risk taking. Without industry, government would have no resources. Just as we moved on from wood, we will move on from fossil fuels – a process now underway. Markets and consumers adjust as new technologies develop. We get into trouble when change is forced on us before we and markets can adapt.
Government should not, in my opinion, pick winners and losers. Markets exist to test and to market new ideas, services and products, as well as to “discover” prices for consumers Nevertheless, the temptation to collude is great, as billions of dollars are at stake. Was it not hypocritical for former Vice President Al Gore, with his large, energy consuming home in Nashville, his access to a private plane and his fleet of SUVs, to make millions with his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and his speeches? And what about his sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera, the part-state-owned news organization in the petroleum rich nation of Qatar? Mr. Gore has made about $200 million since leaving the Vice Presidency. What about those like Michael Moore, and the owners of the 1700 private jets who flew into Davos, Switzerland in 2015 to exploit global warming. It is hypocrisy and cronyism at their worst – private profits and public losses.
We would all like to preserve things as they are, whether it is a moment in time, a relationship, a favorite pet, or endangered flora and fauna. But that is not the world. Over millions of years, the earth has warmed and cooled thousands of times. To assume reining in man’s excesses will lessen tornadoes and emasculate hurricanes ascribes to mankind powers Canute showed man does not have. Whether we will be able to adapt to extreme changes in temperatures is a question without answer. A more immediate concern is will man’s inclination toward hostility hasten his demise? It is why we should all be concerned with countries like North Korea and Islamic terrorist organizations, like ISIS. They have, to use a vernacular, “no skin in the game.” If our end should happen betimes, it is less likely to be because someone violated the Paris accords, and more likely because some rogue regime or group, with little to lose, pressed the wrong button.
The risk in the Left’s emphasis that man is principally responsible for weather changes is the concomitant belief that if man adheres to, for example, the Paris protocols, then all will be well – temperatures will moderate and seas will recede. But, what if climate zealots are wrong? What happens if, after man has reduced his carbon footprint, weather changes persist – the earth continues to warm (or cool) and seas continue to rise (or subside)? As temporary inhabitants of earth, we should do all we reasonably can to limit our environmental impact, but we must also be mindful that it is wealth, not poverty, that affords conservation. We tempt fate when we build in low-lying, flood-prone regions, or along coasts that are at risk of falling into the sea, or on known geological fault lines. Whom should we blame if disaster then strikes? Coal miners, oil companies, Republicans? Or those who built where they should not. We must, like all species, be responsible and learn to adapt.
There is more about nature that is unknown than known. The science of climate change is a constant and evolving process of discovery. We know more today than we did five years ago, and we will know even more five years from now. But we will not know everything. “Climate changers” refuse to believe that nature, not man, may be the crucial factor in changing weather patterns
The Paris Climate Agreement limits global warming to two degrees centigrade by the end of the century. The arrogance embedded in the precision of that demand suggests a mindset among climate apostles that reminds one of Canute’s knights – the belief that if man only reduced his carbon footprint, then oceans would recede, storms would abate, and the planet’s temperature would be limited to no more than two degrees. It is the conceit that offends. A sign inside the Old Royal Naval College in the Borough of Greenwich in London has greater pertinence: “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”