Freeman Dyson, physicist, polymath, and intellect of such a towering magnitude that “genius” feels somehow inadequate, recently passed away at the age of 96. Obituary writers in the usual places chose, predictably and disappointingly, to highlight one particular nugget in their reports, despite the enormous breadth of his achievements: his dissident views on climate change. The Washington Post dubbed them an “apostasy,” and he himself labeled his viewpoint a “heresy.” National Review, in covering this matter, referred to “the orthodoxy on climate change.”

“Heresy.” “Apostasy.” “Orthodoxy.”

None of these words should be within a thousand miles of a scientific debate. And, yet, a rational look at the debate on climate change finds ample evidence that these religious terms are apt descriptors, that climate change’s true believers and alarmists have a view that’s more dogma than it is proper scientific perspective.

This is (or should be) alarming, but dogmatists can actually be accommodated within the practical elements of the climate change debate, i.e. the questions of mitigation: what, how, where, when. If a remedy is benign, synergistic with other desirable goals, and either cost-effective or of moderate fiscal impact, we can tolerate dogmatic assertions whether or not they align with more critical thinking.

However, if a remedy is damaging, expensive, and counterproductive to the achievement of desirable societal, economic, and human goals, then we need three things: A high degree of certainty as to the conclusions that call for remedy, a high degree of certainty that the remedy will work, and a high degree of certainty that the remedy will not do more harm than good.

As regular readers know, I don’t believe that the brute-force plan to cap and tax carbon emissions, and ultimately generate the large majority of our energy from wind and solar power, satisfies any of those conditions. Dyson is of a similar mind, based on his writings.

One phrase, repeated as the title of this essay, struck me as perfect: the concept of a “humanistic ethic.” Many environmentalists, as well as many futurists, fantasists, and doomsayers, see the human race as an externality to the planet Earth, and a negative one at that. I’ve heard, more times than I can count, that we’ve got too many people on the planet and that we’d be better off if 2/3 or 90% of the human race went away. It’s a common retort to my pointing out that GMO crops (see: Golden Rice, among others) and DDT use could save millions of lives every year, because those saved lives are on the other side of the planet.

Ditto for the technologies that we take for granted here, but that could and would lift hundreds of millions out of subsistence living and elevate them to a mere fraction of the lifestyles that the West’s poorest enjoy. At the core of those technologies is cheap energy. Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, cheap energy is anathema to climate doomsayers, because it interferes with their aspirations. It’s also anathema to those who see global warming as a lever with which to push the world toward more socialism and less capitalism, despite the former’s horrific death toll and the latter’s massive record of success in advancing the human condition. Dig just below the surface of many high-thinkers’ veneers and you’ll find lustful fantasies about taking charge of the world’s economies.

The number of people in the world who live without electricity has dropped by a third in the last 30 years, but it still remains around a billion. Insistence that these people receive their energy from renewable sources, instead of the readily-available carbon sources, is an insistence that many or most of the go without. Electricity goes hand-in-hand with better sanitation, cleaner water, better medical care, and overall greater economic productivity, from which emerges better nutrition, more comfortable life, reduced mortality, and just a few of the things that we in the first world cannot even fathom being without.

Those who demand the decarbonization remedy for global warming don’t seem to give one whit about these people. Yet, apart from people, the Earth is an irrelevance.

Dyson thumped this drum. As do other eminent scientists like Robert Zubrin and Bjorn Lomborg. Opinions differ on global warming and on if and how it should be remediated, and we can and should debate those differences. But, at the core of it all lies Dyson’s “humanistic ethic,” and those who show an indifference or hostility to seeing the lives of the world’s poor improve are not people whose opinions have any moral grounding.

Right now, the Malthusians, the radical greens, and the power-lusters who see global crises, real and imagined, as a pathway to inflicting misery on their fellow humans (whether they admit to themselves or not) are being relatively quiet, as human ingenuity battles the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be many lessons offered by this latest episode of humanity’s fight against Mother Nature, whose primary goal, if a goal can be assigned to an anthropomorphized abstraction, is to kill us. Some will be heeded, some will not, some will be gotten very wrong. As we sort them out, it’s vital that we embrace the humanistic ethic. For it is a certainty many will not.

It’s also vital that we remember what elevated humanity to its current state of ease, wealth, prosperity. It’s not socialism, it’s not collectivist and/or big nanny government. It’s liberty, capitalism, free minds and free markets. Government serves a role in supporting and sustaining those, and government exists to manage crises such as this one. But, it’s not a substitute, as is patently obvious from the fact that it cannot come even close to printing enough money to offset the economic ravaging the world is currently suffering. And, it’s far, far, FAR from omniscient or omnipotent, with countless examples of how it has actually hindered beneficial actions.

Some will seize on this crisis to dismiss those of a limited-government mien with binary accusations of unlimited government power and scope vs anarchy. Yes, it’s already happened, and it will again (despite the fact that libertarians aren’t anarchists, I’ve seen at least a few erudite columnists imply the equivalence. Shame on them, they should know better). So, be ready for it, hold fast to your values, and remember the humanistic ethic that is best advanced by those values.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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