Followup – Did baby boomers wreck the planet?
Reducing the question to “Paul Ehrlich was wrong, we have tons of stuff actually!” is shallow, tendentious, and stupid … Terrible, shoddy work all around. – HMS_Irruncible
This column (written by a Boomer) is a poster child for selfishness. – TroutMan
Ugh. Cecil answered a completely different question than the one that was in the title of the article. Yes, the whole world is much more prosperous than it was 50 years ago … But that’s not the point. That prosperity, combined with a relative disregard for the reality of climate change, has led to things having gotten much worse on the climate change front compared to what might have happened. – glowacks
You could have written a column that pointed out that no generation … is a monolith and thus deserves the blame for the current state of affairs. Instead you showed yourself as one of the elite, regardless of generation, who fail to recognize the threat of global warming, the utter inadequacy of our current measures and the extreme unlikelihood of new technology arising to save us from it and [instead] hand wave it all away, helping yourself and others feel [good] about decades of dragging our feet on real action. – naita
I found the entire article just a tired rehashing of neoliberal propaganda … without any awareness that this is what it was doing [or of] the substantive critiques of the mainstream neoliberal line of thought. – Shalmanese
Oh, dear. I seem to have stepped in it, don’t I?
I blame myself. My aim in writing the column at issue was to (a) lampoon the idea that an entire generation could be fairly blamed – or credited – for anything; (b) stamp out rekindled enthusiasm for the Ehrlichs’ alarmism about population growth, which was wrong on the specifics but in line with the current gloom; and (c) point out that, contrary to wide belief, humanity’s lot over the past 50 years has significantly improved.
I might have gotten away with any two of these goals. Trying for all three was a bridge too far. In particular, what I thought of as a tongue-in-cheek premise (did boomers wreck the planet?) led some to expect an examination of generational complicity in climate change, or anyway something more substantial than “we’ll figure something out.”
Point taken. So let’s have another go, taking it from the top – and this time all kidding aside:
Baby boomers did some good things and some bad things. The same can be said of any generation. The idea that progress or the lack of it can be attributed to a specific birth cohort is absurd.
Living standards unquestionably improved in much of the world over the past couple generations due primarily to industrialization and the growth of the middle class. U.S. baby boomers had little to do with it, notwithstanding my impish suggestion to the contrary, except to the extent that they supported free trade, globalization, and so on (NAFTA promoter Bill Clinton was, after all, an early boomer), about which one can only say: it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The notion that boomers – or anyway people born prior to, say, 1990 – are collectively to blame for climate change presupposes several things: first, that the public years ago even knew what climate change was; second, that there was, or is, a consensus on what to do about it; and third, that said consensus approach, to the extent we have now arrived at it, would actually have worked. None of these things is true.
The last contention requires some explanation. Warning: This is complicated. We’ll take it step by step:
Little was known about climate change in the 1970s, when the middle contingent of baby boomers came of age, and what research existed was contradictory, with some scientists claiming the planet was cooling while others said it was warming up. A scientific consensus was slow to emerge, and even when it did, the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 said the crisis was still a long way off. It wasn’t until 2002 that the National Academies published a report recognizing that climate change was occurring more rapidly than expected.
I’d argue that, for Americans, the urgency of the situation didn’t fully sink in until Hurricane Sandy inundated much of New York City in 2012, whereupon the national news entities based there collectively went: holy sh*t. In Sandy’s wake, New York Times coverage sharply increased and other U.S. media followed suit (although some contend climate coverage by U.S. news media remains grossly inadequate). No doubt as a consequence, public recognition of the urgency of climate change, till then in decline, began heading up – and even so didn’t surpass 50% till 2020. So sure, most Americans now agree climate change is a priority problem. But that consensus has only recently emerged.
You may say: Shows you how clueless boomers are.
It’s not that simple. A major impediment has been the political polarization of the past three decades. The environmental movement that took hold in the 1970s had the advantage of bipartisan support – Republican Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order in 1970 and signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. I can’t imagine a Republican president doing anything comparable about climate issues today. Democrats overwhelmingly favor action on climate change; Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed. Lacking congressional support, Barack Obama was reduced to implementing climate policy changes by executive order, which Donald Trump subsequently revoked.
The most serious problem, though, is that no realistic plan for dealing with climate change has yet been devised, and there’s no immediate likelihood of one emerging. Some will object: What about the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls for limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees, by mid-century? That’s not a plan, that’s an aspiration. The fact is that, on the current trend, (a) there’s no chance we’ll meet that goal, and to be honest, (b) we better hope we don’t.
How so? First, as your columnist pointed out in 2006, carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver of climate change, are a function of industrialization – developed countries burn a lot more fossil fuels, and thus emit more CO2, than undeveloped ones.
Second, as this 2021 projection from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows (scroll down to slide #8), developed countries (more precisely, the 36 industrialized, mostly Western nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) can reasonably hope that, with concerted effort, their energy consumption, and thus their emissions, will eventually plateau. However, in the rest of the world – which accounts for 83% of Earth’s 8 billion people – energy use and emissions will keep rocketing upward, swamping any improvements in OECD countries. Result, according to the EIA:
If current policy and technology trends continue, global energy consumption and energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will increase through 2050 as a result of population and economic growth.
Mind, this is a federal agency, effectively telling the signatories of the Paris Agreement: sorry, folks, your grand scheme isn’t going to work. A recent Washington Post analysis came to the same conclusion.
Third, we want energy consumption in the developing world to increase, because – stay with me now – that means those countries are becoming more industrialized and middle-class. Worldwide prosperity, and the desire for smaller families that comes with it, is our best hope that global population growth – and here we circle back to the Ehrlichs’ nightmare – will ultimately level off. For what it’s worth, CO2 emissions and population have both flattened out in China. In India, not yet.
You may say: no problem, we’ll just switch the world to renewable energy, and carbon emissions will go away! Don’t get your hopes up. As I pointed out in 2011, there aren’t enough alternative energy sources on the planet. Granted, my source for that declaration hadn’t factored in solar power, which he hoped would make great strides, as indeed it has – I’ll have to reach out for an update. But whatever solar may contribute, we still need one or more non-weather-dependent energy sources to tide us over during dips in the alternative juice supply. One obvious candidate – and yes, I’ve said this multiple times – is nuclear power. Other than Oliver Stone, you see many people demanding we bring back nukes? Me either. But the day may yet arrive.
So, can our failure to solve climate change be pinned on doofus boomers? Obviously there’s more to it. Not saying the old coots are blameless – regardless of political persuasion, they had a weakness for simplistic answers and magical thinking. Just like the young geniuses of today.
– CECIL ADAMS
After some time off to recharge, Cecil Adams is back! The Master can answer any question. Post questions or topics for investigation in the Cecil’s Columns forum on the Straight Dope Message Board, boards.straightdope.com/.