Al Gore's recent Oscar win for "An Inconvenient Truth" has some activists calling for him to enter the 2008 presidential race. Ironically, his agenda seems to have shifted toward the single-issue party platform of diehard Green Party members that may have cost him the 2000 election. The recent surge of environmental activism is obviously of great importance to many, but much concern and energy is misplaced.
The headlining issue of global warming is of course no stranger to the front page. But some hot air could due to be released from the general situation. By most measures the average global temperature has increased about a degree over the past century, with human effects responsible for no more than half of that. Many apocalyptic models of future global warming scenarios rely on levels of accuracy that are simply ridiculous by any good standards of statistics. A recent USA Today article claims to know the average global temperature of the world to within .001 degrees, for every of the past two thousand years. Additionally, the global temperature has grown over the past century, but by many historical accounts similar phenomena occurred in the Middle Ages and before. Moreover, if the global climate is changing it is almost a certain thing that the changes will bring increased prosperity to some regions, no matter what the causes are. The upshot is, skeptics of the data in support of past, present, and future global warming have decent reasons to be so. The data is far from conclusive.
Another environmental issue is much closer to home - in the grocery store, in fact. The ubiquitous labels of organic foods or locally produced foods are not as cut-and-dried as one might think. Although organically grown foods do not (duh) use chemical of any sort, because they do not use special fertilizers and pesticides they require about three times as much land to grow. Thus, if current world food output is to stay organic, farm land would necessarily need to triple - an event that would likely have hugely detrimental effects on certain locales. Another food topic is the locally grown foods, which are either supposed to cut down on green house gas emissions from being transported from far away, or are supposed to help local farmers. Both of these issues are not as beneficial as they might seem. First of all, supporting local farmers is similar to the old and defunct arguments for protectionism. Secondly, a recent study in Britain showed that most "food miles" were not even used in farm-to-store transport, but rather in store-to-home transport. Locally grown foods travel less efficiently, cutting down on any travel reducing benefits they might have.
Concern for the environment is certainly warranted now as much as ever, but a more prudential approach would likely lead to less panic and smarter policy.
Sources: (the 'link' function was broken)
"The Economist," December 9-16 issue