Environmentalists claim the moral high ground: their interests are in preserving our precious planet, protecting defenseless animals, ensuring our children have clean water to drink and air to breathe. Yet environmentalists' policies have been a much more mixed bag in terms of their actual consequences. Indisputably, many regulations and initiatives have reduced pollution and improved air and water quality, to the benefit of everyone. But other environmental efforts have backfired, some with truly disastrous consequences.
Consider what's happened with dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. The pesticide came into use during World War II and helped eliminate malaria in the United States. The chemist who discovered DDT's efficacy was even given a Nobel Prize. However in 1962, environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring which hypothesized that the chemical was causing cancer and destroying wildlife. In 1972, DDT was banned in the U.S. and ultimately worldwide.
As a result of the ban, malaria remained a plague in many poor countries, particularly in Africa. As of 2006, malaria was the biggest killer in Uganda, accounting for more than one in five deaths in the country's hospitals and killing more than 100,000 children under 5 years old annually. At that time, Uganda announced that it would begin using DDT indoors despite threats from the European Union that such a move could lead to a ban on certain agricultural imports.
Fortunately, in September 2006, the World Health Organization announced a change in policy: It now recommends DDT for indoor use to fight malaria. The organization's Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah explained, "The scientific and programmatic evidence clearly supports this reassessment. Indoor residual spraying (IRS) is useful to quickly reduce the number of infections caused by malaria-carrying mosquitoes. IRS has proven to be just as cost effective as other malaria prevention measures and DDT presents no health risk when used properly."
So during the decades in which DDT was not used, when the world bowed to undoubtedly well-intentioned environmental activists, about 50 million people—overwhelmingly African children—died, mostly unnecessarily.
Ethanol provides another, though far less dramatic, example. For years, biofuels were heralded as the promising alternative to fossil fuels, which would reduce our carbon output, improve the environment, and provide needed energy. Yet it turns out biofuel's environmental impact is much more complicated.
In 2008, Time magazine wrote about ethanol's dubious environmental benefits in a cover story entitled, "The Clean Energy Scam." The article warned that forests, wetlands, and grasslands were being sacrificed in a rush to farm crops that could be turned into gasoline. More recently, the peer-reviewed journal Science reported on a study finding that cap-and-trade accounting systems understate the emissions created by the production of biofuels. The study concluded that cap-and-trade programs could encourage biofuel production that would displace 59% of the world's natural forest cover by 2050.
So the once environmentally favored solution to our energy problems—and still a politically-favored one—is now recognized as a potential environmental catastrophe. It's worth noting that, beyond biofuel's environmental effects, using food for fuel has a significant impact on the worldwide food supply. As more crops and land are dedicated to producing fuel, the costs of food will climb, which could exacerbate problems of poverty and hunger, particularly in already impoverished countries.
Given this experience, the public would be wise to be cautious in whole-heartedly embracing the policy prescriptions of environmentalists. The movie, Not Evil, Just Wrong, makes the connection between the DDT saga and what's going on with climate change today. Prominent environmentalists promise that they are confident that man is causing the Earth to warm, and they don't want to contemplate (at least publicly) alternative theories about how the sun might be responsible for warming, that the warming isn't unprecedented and therefore could be naturally occurring, or to linger on potential problems on their own temperature readings that might make warming seem more extreme than it is. They don't want to consider the costs of policies that they want to oppose in the name of combating global warming, or just how ineffectual those policies might be. Yet the public should consider what a significant decline in worldwide wealth will mean, particularly for those who are already poor.