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Carbon dioxide and the evil empire

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) was founded by Manhattan Project scientists who built the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Since 1947, the group has maintained a Doomsday Clock to visualize perceived threats to the existence of humanity. In January, the group moved the clock to three minutes from midnight for the first time since 1984.

The minutes have no intrinsic meaning, so setting the clock three minutes from midnight merely implies equality of the threats. The Cold War was very cold in 1984, and nuclear war with the Soviet Union appeared to be a real possibility. The primary threat the BAS perceives today is from climate change. (They secondarily cite modernization of the world’s nuclear arsenals, but I will focus on climate change.)

People with different views of how society and nature work will differ in their perceptions of potential risks. But can the BAS seriously propose that a trace gas in the Earth’s atmosphere necessary for life, carbon dioxide, and the Communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union pose equal threats to humanity?

Let’s recall 1984. President Reagan had drawn a firm line against Soviet aggression, modernizing our conventional military forces, expanding the navy, and deploying the Pershing II and cruise missiles to Europe. His “Evil Empire” speech in March 1983 symbolized this challenge.

The Soviet Union was the greatest threat to human freedom in the 20th Century. Its Communist regime killed tens of millions of people in pursuit of its goal of world revolution. The Soviets occupied Eastern Europe for more than forty years and possessed a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world. President Reagan was standing up to the bully, which always risks a fight.

The threat of war was perhaps greater than recognized. The Soviet economy was collapsing, although the BAS can be excused for not recognizing this. The CIA consistently overestimated Soviet GDP, and high oil prices in the 1970s hid the internal contradictions of its centrally planned economy. And sadly many American economists believed that the Soviet Union’s central planning was superior to our market economy. The leading college economics textbook of the day projected that the Soviet economy would surpass the U.S., although the overtaking date was moved back with each new edition.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, followed soon by the Soviet Union itself. Many authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union have launched foreign adventures when facing insurmountable problems. Argentina’s military rulers crippled their economy with inflation and foreign debt and then tried to divert public attention by seizing the Falkland Islands from Britain in 1982. The collapsing Communist regime in the former Yugoslavia embarked on a series of ethnic conflicts in the 1990s.

Contrast this with global warming. As economist Thomas Sowell recently reminded us, the impact of the greenhouse effect depends entirely on exactly how much carbon dioxide emissions will raise global temperatures. Although 97% of scientists might agree on the direction of the effect, whether a modest or significant rise in global temperatures will result remains uncertain.

The BAS cites that 2014 was the warmest year on record and that 9 of the 10 hottest years have occurred since 2000, but this does not prove that catastrophe will ensue. For one, 2014 may not have been the hottest year on record, because the difference in average temperature (hundredths of a degree) was within the margin of error. More significantly, because 2014 was basically no warmer than other recent years, the 17 year long pause in global warming continues. The climate models upon which the BAS projects calamitous global warming predict steady warming without a pause, highlighting the uncertainty about the magnitude of the greenhouse effect.

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 100,000 persons immediately. In 1984 the U.S. and Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear warheads many times more powerful than the 1945 bombs. It is hard to imagine how a nuclear war would not have wiped out humanity. Global warming, even under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most dire scenarios, is simply not a comparable threat.


Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. Respond to him at dsutter@troy.edu and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.


About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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