Dousing the Fire

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World on Fire: Saving an Endangered Earth, by George Mitchell, New York: Scribner's, 247 pages, $22.50

The dust jacket of this screaming, hysterical look at our collapsing planetary environment (or "ecosystem," which is the currently favored word) carries a photograph of a smiling, cheerful-looking Sen. George Mitchell (D–Maine). As you read this catalogue of the horrors humanity supposedly faces unless we rapidly adopt Mitchell's draconian solutions, you might ask yourself: Why is this man smiling?

After all, anyone who even browses through this book will find little to laugh about. "In 50 years, in Mexico City," Mitchell predicts, "the sun will be obliterated from the sky, and air pollution will make breath an irritating effort." (As a native New Yorker, I can certainly describe to any curious Mexican what his capital is in for.) "The day we began burning fossil fuels," he continues, "we began turning our earth into an uninhabitable hothouse."

Chlorofluorocarbons are "eating" the ozone layer and will cause skin cancer to reach epidemic levels. Even if we stop all greenhouse-gas emissions "today," the world's temperature will rise 2 to 4 degrees, melting the polar ice caps and causing all kinds of other sticky problems. Mitchell assures us this is not mere fantasy, "but is our grim future." Indeed.

But wait. There's more. In the continental United States, 9 million acres of "precious wetlands have been ruined by farming, urban growth and vacation developments." (Emphasis added.) I wonder if the senator has told his constituents in Maine, who live mainly by farming and by hosting vacationers from other states, that they should close up shop and disappear for the sake of the environment.

You get the idea. Anyone who has read a newspaper or watched TV news in the past couple of years has heard all of this without lightening his wallet by $22.50. And Mitchell's book is loaded with wailing about "our disappearing forests." How many trees, I wonder, gave their all for the sake of this oleaginous screed?

I don't use the word screed lightly, for this book is so poorly argued—if argued is even the appropriate term—that you could say it's hardly worth anyone's time.

But the book's author makes it important. If George Mitchell were just another publicity-hungry backbencher in Congress, then these ravings could be conveniently relegated to the remainder pile along with Howard Baker's No Margin for Error and Bud Shuster's Believe in America. Yet Mitchell is majority leader of the United States Senate, a man who can actually get a serious hearing for, if not enact, some of his proposals. He'd also like to be president.

Mitchell, whose public persona is more that of a pedantic nanny than that of a ranter, is here completely in the hands of his ghost-writer, Jack Waugh, described as an "impassioned expert" on the environment. Experts are often wrong, but when they get "impassioned," watch out.

For instance, World on Fire labels global warming and the greenhouse effect as one of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." (The others are deforestation, acid rain, and the hole in the ozone layer.) Now no one disputes the existence of a greenhouse effect. After all, that's how we stay alive. If the earth's atmosphere did not trap more heat than it radiated back into space, the planet would be a frozen chunk of rock like the moon.

The real question is whether the atmosphere traps too much heat. Mitchell seems to have had his revelation during the blazing summer of 1988. He duly cites NASA scientist James Hansen's Senate testimony of that year stating that global warming was no longer a threat, it was a fact, and it was increasing. Mitchell lets this argument stand, as if no one had disputed Hansen's statement in the last three years and as if the testimony were undisputed among scientists.

But to this day, Hansen remains almost alone in his assertions. Even the paid-up eco-alarmist Stephen Schneider of the U.S. Center for Atmospheric Research has carefully put some distance between himself and Hansen. Among the reasons: Nine-tenths of the planet is covered by water, where it's difficult to get consistent readings; many of the temperatures are recorded in expanding urban areas, which tend to be warmer than the surrounding countryside; while 1988 was indeed a hot summer, the winter of 1987–88 was one of the coldest recorded in the Northern Hemisphere.

Nowhere does Mitchell mention that the vast majority of climatologists don't believe a dangerous global warming trend is taking place. There are even those who contend that a slight warming could lengthen the growing season and produce more food for the millions Mitchell claims are about to starve.

Mitchell's no better on acid rain. He's so eager to require businesses to spend massive amounts on new scrubbers to clean acid-forming substances out of the air that he doesn't mention the study by the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project (NAPAP). This 10-year, $500-million project, commissioned by Congress in 1980 after the Environmental Protection Agency issued an apocalyptic report about an "aquatic silent spring" in the Northeast, showed that acid rain was no big problem. The acidity in Northeastern lakes was more likely caused by soil runoff than by industrial pollution. In fact, the study concluded that putting lime in a few lakes would probably take care of acid rain.

But George Mitchell isn't interested in facts. He devotes the entire second half of this tome to proposed "solutions." They're everything you expect. Heavy taxes on oil, gas, and coal use. New regulations on industry, and particularly on the filthy, disgusting automobile.

If Mitchell were at least honest about the implications of his plans, his book might be a little easier to swallow. But the potential costs of his proposals are only hinted at or glossed over. At one point, he admits that uncompromising pollution controls might cost a few jobs but brushes this off as a "problem" and then moves on. Elsewhere, he says the United States, because it is the filthiest nation of all, must reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions by 50 percent in 30 years. He insists that "no one is advocating extreme measures," but a 50-percent (or even a 20-percent) reduction in 30 years is extreme by any standard. If policy makers follow Mitchell's prescriptions, the days of prosperity in this country are surely numbered. Mitchell's proposals would shut down vast amounts of economic activity. But quibbling with Mitchell on specifics may be beside the point. Anyone who really believed all the gloom and doom this book contains would simply write a suicide note. George Mitchell may not buy into all the hysterics published under his name. For left-liberals like him, the environmental bugaboo may provide a convenient excuse to justify vastly higher taxes and more statist policies.

Why is this man smiling? That's not hard to figure out.

John A. Barnes is an editorial writer for the Detroit News.