It's a Big World
Jude Wanniski
December 1, 1998


Memo To: Eleanor Clift, Newsweek
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Global Warming

You have a natural tendency to defend environmentalists and a natural tendency to defend Democrats, so it is no surprise that you found yourself defending Vice President Gore's position on global warming when the rest of the gang on The McLaughlin Group last Sunday was razzing him. The fact that a thousand scientists signed a paper supporting the Veep's position really is worth the hooting it got from Pat Buchanan and John McLaughlin when you brought it up. Academic scientists especially in the soft sciences will sign any statement that is Politically Correct. If they refuse, they will suffer for breaking ranks. If they sign, they will see their name in the paper. Anytime a thousand men and women sign a paper attesting to a political/technical issue, you can bet no more than one of them really has a studied, considered opinion. All the rest are uninformed. When several hundred academic scientists signed a statement in support of the Bell Curve, which I assure you is pure racist malarkey, The Wall Street Journal ran their names as if the case were closed. It was only when I inquired that an editor checked for me and to his surprise discovered that every one of them was a "social scientist" and not one was a "physical scientist." The only reporter I could find who dug deeply into the scientific underpinnings of the book was Gregg Easterbrook, who wrote up his superb study for The Washington Monthly, as it was apparently not in accord with Newsweek's position.

The idea that mankind is cooking the earth by burning hydrocarbons makes sense when you hear an advocate explain it. When I heard opponents oppose it, I found they made sense too. If there is a political draw, the tendency is to split the difference. But I was not happy with this outcome and again went to Easterbrook, who covered the environment for Newsweek. I found in his book, A Moment on the Earth, that he comes down about 90% for the skeptics. I then decided to make some inquiries of my own. I began with an awareness that mankind did not burn petroleum until sometime after it was first discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Because statistics have been kept ever since, I called the American Petroleum Institute and asked its library to tell me how many barrels of petroleum have been produced worldwide since 1859. They came back with the answer that to date 178 billion barrels have been produced and consumed.

That seemed like a lot of hydrocarbons. Holy smokes, billions of barrels!!! But I wanted to imagine it in one place. How much area would it cover if it were a giant pool of petroleum? After some simple arithmetic, I realized the pool was not as big as I thought it might be, and would not put a dent in any of the Great Lakes, I wondered how many Lake Tahoes it would fill. We called Tahoe and were quickly told they had a precise estimate of the number of barrels of water in that alpine lake on the Nevada/California border. Eleanor, can you believe 946 billion barrels? In other words, if you drained all the water out of Tahoe and filled it with all the oil ever consumer by mankind, it would not quite fill ONE FIFTH of the cavity! I checked again with API and found that over the next 40 years, mankind is expected to consume another trillion barrels of petroleum which are now part of proven global reserves. This of course would be at much higher average rates of consumption than we now are experiencing. This means Lake Tahoe, if drained, would be able to hold all the proven reserves in the world, with only a slightly higher level than the present water level.

Now I don't want you to feel that I am belittling you for not knowing all this. The fact is, I did study geophysics as a young man before I decided I really wanted to be a political journalist. In my years at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, when I was discovering classical economics and calling it "supply-side economics" to make it sound new and fresh, I was also the energy editorial writer. As a result I was one of the very few political journalists who knew that the world was not running out of petroleum when the Club of Rome and Jimmy Carter said so. Do you remember how you believed the world was running out of oil?

Do yourself a favor, Eleanor, and take a look at a map of the world. Find one big enough to show a spot of blue where the Great Salt Lake is located. The map will be about four feet wide to show that blue spot. Now look for Lake Tahoe and you will not find it. It is simply too tiny to be able to show on a map smaller than several feet in width. It all goes to show that we people are really little and that the Earth is Big. We spend so much time thinking about how important we are that we begin to imagine ourselves being much bigger and much more important than we really are. As a result of thinking of ourselves as practically godlike with our power and our technological science, we wind up doing a great many silly and often destructive things. I'm an environmentalist when it comes to practices that foul our own nest, that pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink. I will even put in a good word for the snail darter now and then. But when Al Gore tells me tells me the global temperature is going up because people are burning too much oil, I withdraw my contribution, and so should you.