Why Steven Hayward isn’t worried about the polar bears.
If you’ve been paying attention to the ongoing global warming debate, no doubt you’re convinced that it won’t be long before we’re all swimming in the waters of the polar ice caps melted by carbon emitted by our SUVs. Another side of the story is championed by the conservative Pacific Research Institute’s Dr. Steven Hayward who has authored the group’s usually rosy Index of Leading Environmental Indicators for the past 12 years. He’s stepped up his efforts with a documentary—An Inconvenient Truth . . . or Convenient Fiction? Hayward takes pains to point out that he’s not a global-warming denier, but rather a voice of calm in the midst of climate-change hysteria. I called Hayward at his Washington, D.C., office recently to see how concerned I should be about global warming.
Paul Kilduff: Your position on global warming is that the world is warming up, but that Al Gore’s predictions for the outcome of this are exaggerated. Things like China becoming more energy efficient will reduce these worst-case scenarios even more. Why isn’t your message getting out?
Steven Hayward: I don’t think there’s a huge mystery to this. I think a lot of human beings are hard-wired to like catastrophe. I mean, there’s a reason why almost every major world religion has a doctrine of the apocalypse, right? And I think for a very long time some parts of environmentalism have always drifted toward a secular version of the apocalypse. Either the population bomb’s going to get us or running out of resources. And climate is perfect, because it’s global. It’s easily made into something that’s absolutely catastrophic, and some people like to run around in panic about these things.
PK: Does your position need something other than “global-warming denier”? Do you need a catchphrase?
SH: One problem is that if you’re a newspaper reporter—and I sympathize with these guys—it’s very hard to write a 1,000-word news account that says, “Hmm, very complicated issue here.” Ahem. And that’s why the summaries, which always summarize in frothy language the worst-case scenarios, they always get a lot of press. But when the actual 1,500-page report comes out like it did yesterday that’s got lots of hedging in it, lots of stuff about things we don’t understand, that never gets any coverage because it’s too big a chore. And for another, it doesn’t make for good copy. It’s a boring story so I think that is part of the problem.
PK: Based on 400 years of weather record-keeping, can we make accurate predictions of the future of the climate of the earth?
SH: Well, we can [for] some things but not others. And above all we’re not very good at predicting 100 years in the future. I don’t care how good our computers are—especially for certain basic parts of this problem that really still can’t be modeled, like cloud behavior, for example, which is going to be huge. A lot of these models simply assume certain things and if you make those certain assumptions you get some pretty scary results, but those assumptions are not very well founded. And the other complication is that there are other reasons for thinking that it’s not a bad idea to move to a lower carbon energy future, partly having to do with running out of oil or having to buy it from places that don’t like us. So in other words, there [are] just other reasons to take some of the policy areas of this seriously without losing our heads about it.
PK: Is it hypocritical to drive fossil-fuel-guzzling cars but not want to live anywhere near the drilling of or refining of oil?
SH: I’m not sure if I’d say hypocritical, but look—there’s nothing wrong with the view that being wasteful with energy is the same as being wasteful with anything. We ought not to be wasteful on principle. I do get a little cross with some conservatives—I think Vice President Cheney made a mistake a few years ago when he said that conservation may be a personal virtue but it’s not really an energy policy. I sort of understood the narrow, wonky point he was making but that was sort of stupid and silly in certain other respects because we should be just as economical about using energy and other resources as anything that we’re economical about.
PK: What about the prospect of all of us having solar panels on our roofs that produce not only enough power for our homes, but our electric cars as well? You don’t see that happening someday?
SH: I actually had solar power for a while when I lived in Northern California and the only reason it penciled out for me personally was the huge subsidies you got from utilities companies and the taxpayers. Otherwise it wouldn’t have paid to do it at all and ultimately those kinds of subsidies are not sustainable on a wide scale. So that’s why I’m always skeptical about whether solar power is going to be more than a niche market. We’ll see. I keep hearing that we’re a few years away from having plug-in hybrid cars that really would make a big difference if they penciled out the way they say they are. But we’re often told that we’re just seven or eight or 10 years away from some breakthrough that never seems to come, so I’ll believe it when I see it.
PK: Do you think this idea of automotive self-sufficiency is pie-in-the-sky?
SH: Maybe. We’ll see. The auto industry has a terrible record of promising stuff they end up not delivering. So when General Motors says, as they’re saying right now, that they’re going to have plug-in hybrids to bring to the market at a competitive price in four, five years, I’m going to say, “Yeah, you’ve told us that before about electric cars and other things.” So they’d better deliver this time.
PK: And they took their last batch of electric cars back. Why did they do that?
SH: Well, those things cost about $100,000 to make and were not very good. The charge didn’t keep for very long. They didn’t actually perform as advertised and that’s part of it. And the other thing was they weren’t actually designed to work off the normal power grid. You had to have special electronic outlets for them, which we now have in places like the Sacramento airport and some other places. So they’re sort of a white elephant; the plug-in hybrid idea, if it really works, will represent a whole lot better idea. You’ll have a car that you can actually drive 300 miles if you want to as well as something you can plug into the standard electrical grid.
PK: Do you see that as the answer to this problem of global warming?
SH: It could be a huge part of it. Some people say that if we went to half gas/electric hybrids over the next 20 years (which would be how long the transition would take), it would save 8 million barrels a day of oil. Well, that’s a huge amount because we consume right now about 20, 21 million barrels a day. So they’re looking at a one-third savings in the oil consumption. If we actually got it, that would be huge, and then if you start spreading the technology to India and China and other countries, all of a sudden the Arabs are going to be looking for something else to do with all their oil. That would be a game-changer.
PK: Let’s take China. Since we owe them so much money, do we have any leverage about telling them what to do and cleaning up their act?
SH: Well, not the leverage of hectoring, but if we actually had a cleaner technology that’s cheaper, they’re going to want to buy it because they ultimately don’t want to be buying all their oil from Saudi Arabia either. They’ve got their own interests to see us succeed in this. So there’s reason to think if we can crack this nut, they’re going to go along very enthusiastically. And we won’t need to persuade them to do anything—they’re going to want to do it.
PK: Do you find this issue breaks down on party lines—the so-called more conservative fly-over states that don’t believe it versus the bicoastal liberals?
SH: There’s something of that. You always find local support for local environmental issues. So Colorado’s got a lot of green sentiment, and Montana, of course, and the farm states. The polls show an amazing partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are much less alarmist about climate change and other environmental issues. It really has taken on a partisan flavor to it which is pretty striking because it didn’t used to be that way 30 years ago, but it is now. And I find that when I talk about environmental trends getting better, it really makes people mad sometimes. It’s amazing. I’ll get hate mail. “How dare you say the air’s getting cleaner? Because it can’t be.” Facts apparently aren’t relevant to these sorts of discussions. People are so deeply invested in the environmental-doom viewpoint that they really get angry if you actually show them that, in fact, there’s data showing that we don’t stink quite as bad as they think.
PK: What about the video of the polar bear that can’t find the iceberg? What about the mountains in Africa that used to be snow-capped? What do you say to that?
SH: One of the problems is that all of these are very fact-based assertions or inquiries, and what you find out is that we don’t have a really good census on polar bear populations. But there are some data sets that suggest that the polar bear population’s actually grown quite a bit in the last 30 years and some of these pictures you’ve seen were isolated examples of bears that drowned during especially heavy storms. It’s not related to climate at all. But that’s a good example of someone who sees an anecdote and runs off and makes it into a harbinger of catastrophe without any real information to go on at all. Mount Kilimanjaro— there’s been several scientific articles that say what’s happened is deforestation and the lands around the mountain have changed the conduction around the mountain and made it drier. So that even if there was no temperature change at all—and it’s not clear there has been any there, actually—the mountain would be losing snow anyway. So, make climate change go away with a magic wand and the mountain is still going to lose snow because of the land-use changes. But people don’t want to hear that. They want to hear that it’s climate change and it’s our fault.
PK: What about the fact that the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere from cars is infinitesimal to the amount produced in nature through decomposition and you and I breathing out every minute?
SH: To be fair to the Al Gore point of view on this, their argument is that we have disturbed the natural equilibrium. In other words, there’s a carbon cycle that’s quite large but the human contribution is now putting it out of balance. That argument may be wrong, but it’s not implausible on its face so it’s worth treating seriously.
PK: Could you break that down for me? I didn’t quite get that.
SH: In other words, there’s lots and lots of carbon dioxide generated by the oceans, by decaying plant matter, volcanoes in the ocean and out of the ocean, animals breathing, whatever, and it’s a regular cycle. It’s given off by stuff and it’s absorbed by trees leafing out in the spring. And the argument is that the carbon that cycles through naturally is much greater than what humans emit from cars and trucks and factories. Gore’s argument is that it’s a natural equilibrium. That it’s stable. In other words, it’s carbon out, carbon in every year. His argument is that the human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are throwing that out of balance. There’s reasons to be doubtful about it, but it’s not on its face a self-evidently silly argument or wrong. That one we should be open about.
PK: So, you don’t believe in it, but—
SH: Well, it’s true that carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere—it’s going up. And yeah, we’re emitting an awful lot. We can measure all that. It’s not entirely clear that we are the reason it’s going up, though, because it has fluctuated throughout history, as we learn more and more about.
PK: The worst-case scenario is that in 100 years the oceans will rise 17 inches.
SH: Well, 23 inches is actually the worst-case scenario of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. Seventeen is their average pick. And the temperature rise, their best guess now is around three degrees Celsius and the range is about 1.5 to 4 [degrees]. And none of those to me looks like the end of the world.
PK: What are Gore’s predictions?
SH: Well, he’s vague about that. He doesn’t actually name a figure. And that’s one of the places he’s very slippery. In his movie he predicts a 20-foot sea level rise. This is one of the areas where he’s way out from the scientific consensus on the matter. He shows Florida disappearing under the ocean and New York City disappearing under the ocean, but what that depends on is half the ice caps melting—Antarctica, Greenland and the North Pole. Now the IPCC discounts that possibility quite severely. What Gore doesn’t tell you is that if we had the worst-case scenario for warming you could get half the ice caps melting over about a 1,000-year period. He doesn’t tell you that.
PK: If we just kept going down the same path of not conserving energy, these scenarios would play out, correct?
SH: There’s an old saying that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. And we’re not going to quit using oil because we run out of oil. It’s going to be because we find something better. The history of energy technology for at least 500 years now is that every new generation gets cleaner than the last. So that’s the other thing that makes this absurd idea that 300 years from now we’re still going to be pumping out lots of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s surely not going to be happening.
PK: Do you think we’ll be driving around in gas-powered cars in 100 years? Isn’t that like the steam engine hanging on?
PK: What about buying carbon credits after, say, [to] offset your foray to Burning Man?
SH: Well, this is just a way to buy yourself out of liberal guilt. This is like the medieval indulgences of the Middle Ages that the church used to sell to sinners. Never mind if they actually work. There are lots of reasons to think they don’t. But if you think about this for a minute, what Gore is saying is he thinks energy should be more scarce and expensive for ordinary people but he and his Hollywood friends are going to use as much as they want and they’ll just buy their way out of it. An autoworker can’t afford to buy carbon credits. A plumber, or any working person, can’t afford to do that. It’s only for the rich. And I don’t think the liberals understood how badly they were hurt in the ’60s and ’70s by what we used to call limousine liberalism. Well, now we have what I and others are calling Gulfstream liberalism. They all want the rest of us to use less energy but they’re going to fly around in Lear jets. Sheryl Crow’s going to have five diesel trucks to haul around all her musical equipment for her concerts. But the rest of us have to live more modest lives. And that’s just not going to fly with ordinary citizens.
PK: That’s what limiting yourself to one square of toilet paper per day will do to you. Would you debate Gore?
SH: Oh, I’d love to if he’d do it. I think he won’t. A lot of his recent appearances he won’t even allow reporters into the room to hear his presentations. And he won’t take questions much of the time. So he’s a real chicken that way.
PK: Your organization, Pacific Research Institute, is a conservative think tank. What do you say to people who say you’re just toeing the company line?
SH: That always strikes me as a weak argument. I’ll say, fine. Yeah, we’re a conservative organization, proud of it. Now, what about our arguments? What’s wrong with them? That’s a lazy way to argue.
PK: Republican Senator Imhoff of Oklahoma is the primary politico against the global warming doomsayers. Is he effective for your cause?
SH: I think he’s actually not because I think he’s too strident about it. This is somewhat taken out of context but he said that global warming is a hoax. And that’s not right. Turns out apparently what he actually said—and I’ve never gone back to check the original language—is [that] catastrophic global warming is a hoax. Now I don’t actually use the language of “hoax,” but I say catastrophic global warming is way oversold and way out of proportion to the facts on the matter. So the legend has now come down that he said global warming is a hoax and so I think that’s not very successful language.
PK: What do you hope to accomplish?
SH: Just the modest hope of getting another point of view out in the world for people who are interested and follow the issue some. That’s really about all. I’m not waiting by my phone for an option from Harvey Weinstein. Or an invitation to screen the film at Cannes or Sundance.
PK: But I’d think that you’d be a darling of the conservative cable news programs like “Hannity & Colmes” on Fox News? Has that happened?
SH: That’s the interesting thing. I was actually on Fox here a few days ago. These TV shows tend to want the full-scale food fight. And see, I’m not quite doing that. I’m sort of somewhere in the middle and they’ll say that doesn’t make for good television. I’ve had O’Reilly’s people call me a few times and they say, “Oh no, that’s not what we want for the show. We’re looking for something else.” And I always say, “Well, it sounds like you’re looking for a character actor, not someone with an opinion.” They tend not to like that, but that’s how those shows work. They want the complete polarization and name-calling. I’ll leave that to somebody else.
PK: Oh, come on. Engage in a little name-calling.
SH: I think the environmentalists may have bitten off more than they can chew on this issue because it’s so enormous and it’s eating up every other environmental issue. And to the extent they paint a dire picture of the future, a lot of people are just going to tune out: “We can’t fix this problem so we’ll just go on with our lives.”
Age: 48 | Birthplace: Pasadena
Astrological sign: Libra
First real job: Does mowing lawns count? First real job was on an electronics assembly line, assembling aircraft smoke detectors.
Favorite pizza topping: Canadian bacon and mushrooms
Mideast peace plan: A really big buffer zone, like, the size of the continent of Africa.
Should we pay as much as Europeans for gas? Yes, but only if we lower income and payroll taxes by a commensurate amount.