Politics & Policy

Earthly Illuminations

Steve Hayward on the state of the planet and what people are saying about it.

For ten years now, Steven Hayward, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Pacific Research Center, has been the principal author of the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators.

In the latest edition, Hayward & co. spot “a turning point.” According to the Index, “It appears that public regard for environmental doomsaying is declining.”

More because the Pacific Research Center sent me bubbles (always looking out for the children) than anything else, I asked Hayward a few questions about his findings and his Earth Day plans (Yes, that’s today, April 22–what do you mean you have nothing planned? What do you mean you didn’t get me anything?). Read on for what he says (and read his report here).

National Review Online Steve, everyone knows conservatives can’t even talk about the environment, right? We want mercury in the water and endangered species annihilated. What’s with your “environmental indicators”? Trying to trick someone? Hoping to sneak onto the board at the Sierra Club?

STEVEN F. HAYWARD: K-Lo: You left out arsenic. Don’t forget how we want to put arsenic in kids’ school lunches. Bill Bennett’s Index of Leading Cultural Indicators back in 1993 actually inspired me to do an annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators. His method–simple time-series graphs of measurable social trends–showed mostly bad news of course, but I knew that the same method–time-series measurements of environmental trends in the U.S.–would show overwhelmingly good news. Not necessarily because of the regulators at EPA, for whom every million-dollar problem requires a billion-dollar solution, but because of a growing economy. Some greenies are slowly and grudgingly admitting what conservatives understand instinctively: Richer is cleaner. Our growing economy and technological prowess is what drives environmental improvement, and as the rest of the world grows richer in the 21st century (India in 2075 will be as rich as Singapore is today on a per capita basis), the world’s environmental problems will begin to improve rapidly.

NRO: What are some of the most dramatic differences between the first Index and your latest?

HAYWARD: Public opinion has begun to turn away from environmental pessimism in a big way, according to recent polls, which explains the meltdown environmental activists are having right now. Polls used to find nearly 75 percent of the public were pessimistic about the environment; recent polls have found a small majority are optimistic. This is driven by the underlying trends: Air pollution in 2004 was at its lowest level ever recorded (despite Bush “gutting” the Clean Air Act), and we’re now gaining wetlands after losing them for more than 150 years. Levels of toxic chemicals like dioxin and PCBs are down more than 90 percent since 1980.

NRO: We’ve all seen the gross smog photos from Los Angeles. But is the air actually getting cleaner now? How is that happening?

HAYWARD: L.A. has had the most substantial improvement of any area in the nation. It used to notch almost 200 days a year above the ozone standard; for the last few years it has exceeded the standard less than 30 times a year. It still has the “worst” air, but the peak levels on the worst days today are only a third as high as when I grew up there and had to lay down on summer afternoons because my lungs hurt so bad from just 15 minutes outside. The main reason for the improvement is cleaner technology, especially in cars. The EPA’s own models predict a further 80-percent reduction in emissions from cars over the next 20 years simply from fleet turnover, never mind whether we move to hybrids or other technologies. This is why I keep offering to bet any enviro $1,000 that air pollution will be lower at the end of Bush’s presidency than when he took office. This is obviously modeled after the famous Julian Simon-Paul Ehrlich bet on natural resources that Simon won. The greenies remember this, which is why none of the people who kvetch about Bush “gutting” the Clean Air Act will put their money where their mouth is.

NRO: Is global warming real or not?

HAYWARD: Yes, I think it is real, but how much warming, how fast, and how serious might be the effects, are questions still a long way from being answered. And it is far from clear that carbon suppression–the Kyoto strategy–is the smartest way to go about addressing the potential of problem. Certainly a costly international regulatory and taxing regime (the U.N.’s goal) is beyond stupid.

NRO: Is my SUV killing the Earth?

HAYWARD: No. It is a great myth that SUVs are greater polluters. True, they use more gasoline, but they now have the same emissions standards as all other automobiles, so replacing your old clunker with a new SUV will actually help clean up ozone smog in America. Because they use more gas, they do emit more carbon dioxide, but remember, carbon dioxide is not a noxious pollutant, but plant food.

NRO: What are some of the worst environmental-alarmist myths?

HAYWARD: It not so much a particular myth as it is the Malthuisian mindset that causes them to issue one doomsday prediction after another. Pick any prediction from the last 30 years from conventional environmentalists, and it was usually wrong, often by an order of magnitude. Greenies have learned from this: never offer specific dates. Nicholas Kristof put the matter well in a recent New York Times column: “environmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise.”

NRO: So what are you doing to celebrate Earth Day?

HAYWARD: Doing a sack dance on the grave of the expiring environmental movement, whose egregious and irresponsible behavior has finally caught up with them.


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