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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Could environmentalism really be communism in disguise?

KYOTO — Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, has published a book bitterly critical of environmentalists that has been translated into several languages. The original title of the book in Czech is "Modra, Nikoli Zelena Planeta," which literally translates as "blue planet, not green." Its English version has the title "Blue Planet in Green Shackles." The Japanese translation is titled "Kankyo-shugi wa Honto ni Tadashii no ka?" This literally means "Is environmentalism truly correct?"

The translator of the Japanese version called Klaus' book the equivalent of "The Road to Serfdom" for the age of environmentalism. Friedrich von Hayek, an Austrian economist, asserted in "The Road to Serfdom" (written during World War II) that fascism and communism shared the same fundamental roots in that they both suppress human freedom. The book became a classic of political economy as it proclaimed that freedom is of supreme value. The masterpiece directly challenged the then prevailing notion that communism liberates people suppressed by fascism.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, a third-generation Japanese-American political scientist, published a book titled "The End of History and the Last Man," in which he said that in the 20th century, freedom and democracy were threatened by two enemies, i.e. fascism and communism, that fascism disappeared at the end of World War II, that communism likewise ceased to exist with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and that, therefore, the whole world would be dominated by freedom and democracy.

To Fukuyama, a Hegelian, human history is a repetition of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It follows, therefore, that with the demise of the antithesis to freedom and democracy, history itself had come to an end. That was the basis for Fukuyama's assertion that the world had entered a peaceful but boring age.

It has become obvious to all, however, that the end of the Cold War marked not the end of history but the beginning of a new stage in history. The world has came to encounter events that defied Fukuyama's arguments, such as the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003.

So, returning to Klaus, the fundamental principles of his book are simple and crystal clear. First, just as Hayek insisted that fascism and communism are fundamentally the same, Klaus says that communism and environmentalism have the same roots in that they both suppress freedom. Again concurring with Hayek by saying that freedom is of supreme value, Klaus contends that anything that threatens that value must be destroyed.

Second, Klaus insists that global warming is to a large extent attributable to natural phenomena and that human activity plays an infinitesimally minor role. Environmentalists claim that the main cause of global warming is the rising concentration of greenhouse gas emissions, caused by human activity, in the atmosphere. They think that reducing emissions is indispensable to fighting global warming, and try to justify the imposition of various controls on the free market through such measures as levying a tax on the use of fossil fuel.

Klaus claims that this type of environmentalism calls for centralized planning of a global scale in place of free and voluntary evolution of human beings, under the slogan of protecting nature. Klaus denounces this as nothing less than a reincarnation of communism.

Third, Klaus accuses environmentalists of making unreasonable calls for restraining today's consumption for the benefit of future generations. Such calls, he claims, are based on an utterly unrealistic premise: that the discount rate, which is used in translating the value of a future good into today's value, is infinitely close to zero. Klaus thinks that the discount rate should not be small, because people by their very nature attach greater importance to the present than to the future.

Now, to make rebuttals against Klaus. First, to refute his assertion that environmentalism suppresses freedom just as communism did. Take, for example, the Kyoto Protocol, which imposes obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on industrially advanced countries but not on developing nations, on the principle that even though all nations are jointly responsible for achieving the reductions, the burden carried should differ from country to country. This runs counter to Klaus' assertion that environmentalism limits the freedom of less developed countries to seek economic growth.

Furthermore, advanced nations, in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, do not deprive corporations and consumers of their freedom by imposing new duties or prohibitions. Instead, they adopt a "carbon pricing" policy that includes environment tax, emissions trading and automobile tax linked to fuel efficiency. In this way, they are trying to achieve emission reductions by internalizing external economies (in this case, carbon dioxide, or CO2) into the market, thus ensuring consumers' freedom of choice.

Klaus is clearly off the mark when he says that environmentalists are more wrong to blame the market, pricing mechanisms, private industry and the pursuit of profit as causing harm to the ecosystem.

Second, Klaus interprets global warming only in terms of rising temperatures and pays little or no attention to the fact that people today, not future generations, are already suffering increasingly from frequent and serious droughts, floods, storms, water and food shortages, epidemics, and relocation of fish populations — all of which are being caused by climate change.

I wonder what Klaus thinks of the undeniable fact that climate change and global warming have become a threat not only to future generations but also to the present. Can Klaus ignore the fact that the most serious damage from climate change is being inflicted on island nations and other poor, developing countries?

Third, the rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is irreversible at least within the next several decades. It follows, therefore, that uncontrolled emissions of such gases today will bring devastating damage to future generations. Even if a technological breakthrough is made to enable us to extract carbon dioxide from smoke emitted by coal-burning power stations and store it underground, that would at best only put a cap on the rising concentration of CO2. It would do absolutely nothing to reduce it.

Even if the losses suffered by future generations are calculated as less than the burdens shouldered by the present generation, it is absurd to dismiss environmentalists' arguments merely on the basis of cost effectiveness and the discount rate. Klaus' contention that environmentalism limits freedom is a fabrication based on shallow calculations.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.

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