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Huntsman and climate change: Is he a rational optimist?


I’ve got two declarative statements to make. One of them, you will not like.  But stretch it out.  Get limber.  If you stick with me, I might be able to tie this room together.

1.)   Jon Huntsman is right on climate change.

2.)   The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley is one of the most important books of the last five years.

A quick correction to the first statement…it was an….understatement. Jon Huntsman’s position on climate change reflects a deep and unique understanding of “how prosperity evolves.” May I explain?

First, I’m not talking about Huntsman’s tweet saying: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."  Rather, I’m talking about Huntsman’s position that the government solution to climate change is to do…absolutely nothing.

Most of the Republican field is stuck in a debate over whether or not climate change is a giant hoax.  But let’s submit for a moment to Huntsman’s contention that man is contributing to climate change.  (FYI – I’m in the ‘I Don’t Know Camp’.  If 97% of climate scientists say it’s true…well that’s compelling. But I also know they were equally as certain and apocryphal about acid rain, thinning ozone, and such.)  By getting past the debate over data we get to a question whose answer is more revealing for our presidential candidates.  That is: what should we do about it?

And as I said, Huntsman’s answer is: nothing.  In an interview last week on SiriusXM Huntsman told me that any plan to regulate carbon emissions was too costly to the economy and ultimately missing the lessons of history.  He said human beings have a history of innovating out of our problems and he’s confident we will do so with climate change. As he spoke, I began to wonder, has Huntsman read The Rational Optimist?

I cannot recommend a book more highly than The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.   In the book Ridley posits that the unique trait driving our species forward in a constantly improving state is human beings’ propensity for exchange, specialization and free trade.  He says that through our habit of free trade the human race has become a “collective problem-solving machine”. Ridley gives several examples.

Peak Coal

In the 1800s British economist Stanley Jevons saw that the world was running out of coal and predicted an impoverished future without the world’s primary fuel source. “It is useless to think of substituting any other kind of fuel for coal,” he said.

Within a decade of Jevons’ prediction not only were vast new coal reserves found, but we also found a substitute for coal. Oil.  And almost as soon as the world discovered oil as a fuel source, predictions about its demise began.

Peak Oil

As Ridley writes: “In 1914, the United States Bureau of Mines predicted that American oil reserves would last ten years. In 1939 the Department of Interior said American oil would last thirteen years. Twelve years later it said the oil would last another thirteen years. President Jimmy Carter announced in the 1970s that: ‘We could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.’”  It’s true oil is finite. But so far we not only keep finding more oil, we find ways to make things work on less oil.

Overpopulation and Famine

Overpopulation and famine are the herpes of doomsday theories. They keep coming back. In the 1970s scientists Paul Erhlich and John Holdren argued that "if population control measures are not initiated immediately, and effectively, all the technology man can bring to bear will not fend off the misery to come." The needed “measures” Holdren and Erhlich discussed included: involuntary sterilization, adding sterilants to the drinking water, and compulsory abortions.  But…the predicted misery never came.  Holdren is now President Obama’s science advisor.

However, the OG of overpopulation and famine was Robert Malthus, who in 1798 predicted that, “the global food supply could not keep pace with population growth because of the finite productivity of land.” The world was headed for famine said Malthus.  Know what? He was right.

Stuck with the productivity and technology of 1800, and extrapolating those circumstances into the future, the world was headed for famine.  Malthus’ flaw, though, was that the world wasn’t stuck with the productivity and technology of 1800.  Over the next two centuries human beings learned how to create large quantities of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, invent the internal combustion engine, and genetically modify food sources.  And over the last hundred years massive increases in croplands, yields, and harvests have led to a population increase of 400 percent.

The Common Mistake: Extrapolation

It’s not just overpopulation, famine, peak coal, and peak oil.  There have been apocalyptic predictions of pandemics, acid rain, and thinning ozone.  The point isn’t that all these predictions were false.  The point is that immediate intervention to stem the problem is rarely the solution.

The mistake of all the doomsday “we must act now” predictions, according to Ridley, is extrapolation.  Or “assuming the future is just a bigger version of the past.”

But it’s not.  The world changes, adapts, evolves. Malthus could no more see the invention of the internal combustion engine, than Holdren could understand genetically modified plants, or than we can now see our future carbon-free fuel source.  But history suggests that the “collective problem solving machine” of the free market will find the solution to climate change.

The obvious critique of this argument is that I’m just sticking my head in the sand and saying it will all be alright.  Maybe. But history suggests that – from a government standpoint - that actually works.  And the real threat is in slowing down or misdirecting change through intervention.

Jon Huntsman statement suggests he understands the very important role of an unencumbered free market.  His record on climate change suggests otherwise.  He did back a cap-and-trade bill as Governor of Utah. It’s a position, though, he has since admitted was a mistake.

Perry and Bachmann may – and probably do – feel similarly about our ability to innovate out of our problems. But we don’t know for sure.  Because they’re too busy debating the validity of the science.

By admitting that he believed man was contributing to climate change, though, Huntsman was able to move to the next stage of the debate and illuminate a more important principle. That is the principle that free markets allow us to innovate out of our problems and drive human beings toward prosperity. That’s good to know.

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