Earth Day 2016: Let's ditch the doom and gloom and celebrate our improving environment

Predictions of environmental gloom and doom meet us at every turn. At the entry of the Chicago Field Museum, for example, is a digital clock reporting “the number of species that have gone extinct since 8:00 this morning”—31 by 1 p.m. on March 27, 2016. Discussions of climate change almost always include terms such as catastrophic, irreversible, and irreparable. Documentaries fill the airways with titles such as “Catastrophic Failure” and “Fossil Free” as Leonardo Di Caprio partners with NetFlix to produce a multiyear eco-catastrophe series.

The Emmy Award winning series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” hosted by Hollywood’s greenest actors, produced enough apocalyptic storytelling to leave viewers with feelings of guilt, despair, frustration, and helplessness. Is it any surprise, therefore, that the International Journal of Mental Health Systems reported that a survey of Australian children found that a quarter were “so troubled about the [environmental] state of the world that they honestly believe tit will come to an end before they get older.” The result is the feeling that we are locked in a war to save the planet, a war that only can be won with an arsenal of government regulations.

The Emmy Award for “Years of Living Dangerously” was in the category of non-fiction, but fiction might have been a more appropriate category because the facts simply do not bear out many of the gloom and doom predictions.

Take the Field Museum clock, for example. Ecologists use models—mathematical equations—to predict that “Every day, up to 105 species are lost” for a rate of 10 percent per decade.

Fortunately when the model predictions are put up against actual data, they aren’t borne out. In the case of endangered species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) documents only 800 extinctions over the past 400 years and none were reported in 2015.

Now consider the dire prediction regarding global warming and think of climate like golf. It is easy to see where the ball has landed after it has been hit, but difficult to construct a model to predict with much confidence where the next ball will land. There are just too many variables.

The actual record of global land-ocean surface temperatures shows that they have been rising at a rate of 0.67°C (1° Fahrenheit) per century (measured in terms of the deviations of annual mean global temperatures from the 1951-80 average). At that rate, it will take more than 500 years for the earth to heat up 4°C (7° Fahrenheit)—the temperature that many scientists claim would be catastrophic. Even by fitting a curve to the data, rather than a straight line, it still would take more than 130 years to reach the danger level. Yes, temperatures are rising, but not at a catastrophic gloom and doom rate.

Not only are temperatures not rising as fast as climate models predict, CO2 emissions in the United States are not continuing to rise either. Between 2000 and 2013, CO2 emissions fell from 5.5 billion metric tons to 4.9 billion metric tons, a rate of 0.7 percent per year. During the same period, emissions per capita declined at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent and emissions per unit of GDP declined 2.4 percent.

Perhaps even more interesting than declining carbon emissions is evidence that this is not due to government regulations. Hoover research fellow Carson Bruno, hypothesized that California’s aggressive anti-carbon policies would make the “Golden State” shine compared to other states, “especially given the U.S.’s overall lackadaisical approach to climate change.” Using U.S. Energy Information Agency data, he found that California CO2 emissions reductions were about the same as the other 49 states on all measures. In other words California’s ambitious anti-carbon regulations are not reducing CO2 emissions any faster, but they are very costly. Moreover, the main reason why carbon emissions are declining is that entrepreneurs are finding more efficient way to use fossil fuels and new ways of generating energy.

The final example of gloom and doom that just isn’t true is forest cover. From an early age children are taught to recycle paper as a way of saving trees. The first reason this is a myth is that paper is produced mainly from plantation forests planted to be harvested and planted again. While those trees are growing, they are sequestering carbon, which, when converted into paper and disposed of in a landfill, sequesters that carbon for a long time.  The same is true for houses made mainly from lumber.

The fact is that forest cover in the United States has remained constant despite concerns of urban sprawl thought to “pave paradise and put in a parking lot,” as sung by Joni Mitchell. For the past decade, forest cover has been approximately 33 percent, slightly above the global average of 31 percent.

As with carbon emissions, abundant forest cover is not due to the federal government’s forest management policies. Yes, timber production on U.S. Forest Service lands has declined by 83 percent since the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest and other environmental scare stories stifled logging in the 1990s. However, as unmanaged forests have become denser and older, they have also become more susceptible to drought, fire, disease, and insects. As a result, forest mortality has tripled as harvesting has declined leaving our national forests with a negative growth rate.

To be sure, we humans need to be cognizant of the limits to Mother Nature’s bounty, and we need to improve her productivity through human ingenuity. Rather than despair, we can celebrate Earth Day 2016 knowing that the environment is getting better all the time.