Patrick Allitt is a historian, not a scientist. So what’s he doing writing a book about climate change and environmentalism?
“It’s difficult for us as laypeople to pass judgment,” says Allitt, the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. “I guess what I’m trying to do is say that historically we’ve seen a lot of examples of what now look like disproportionate fears that turned out not to come true.”
Allitt’s new book, published March 20, is A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism. A polymath of sorts, Allitt held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University before coming to Emory in 1988 and has since written books on American religious history, the American college teaching experience, and the history of American conservatism’s most prominent thinkers.
For starters, it’s worth noting that Allitt talks like a political moderate, not a Fox News commentator. And he’s not a climate change denier; he’s just uncertain how much blame humans should take for it.
Moreover, he’s not opposed to environmental movements as a whole. By his reckoning, American environmentalism started with legitimate concerns about nuclear fallout in the 1950s, which led to the signing of the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty in 1963. The movement picked up momentum in ’62 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which documented the harmful effects of uncontrolled herbicide and pesticide use.
“[Carson] didn’t realize it would get such a popular reception,” Allitt says. “I mean obviously it’s a book about chemistry, and normally books like that don’t sell very much. It even has equations in it. But it caught the popular mood at the moment.”
Again, Allitt thinks Carson raised valid and important points in her book. But as a historian, Allitt is interested in how the tides of politics and the vagaries of public opinion intersect with hard science.
Allitt says one instance where the environmentalists got it wrong was the overpopulation scare of the 1960s. One popular book on the topic, Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, warned of mass starvation due to overpopulation in the developed world by the 1980s. “[Ehrlich] was regularly on TV, on the Johnny Carson show, gave testimony to Congress, was widely believed. It seemed very convincing, and the rising did seem alarming,” Allitt says. But the 1980s came and went, and famine never arrived in the United States or Western Europe.
In the ’70s, a major environmental scare was the depletion of natural resources. Allitt says some leading authorities predicted that essential natural resources would run out by the year 2000. “The thing about these is they’re all legitimate concerns,” Allitt says. “It’s just that sometimes the concern got a little bit disproportionate to the actual danger.”
When it comes to global warming, Allitt knows he holds some unpopular views. “The book is going to be controversial because I don’t think the global warming crisis is catastrophic,” he says. “I think it’s a problem, but I think it’s a manageable problem.”
But what’s the harm done if we clean up the environment for nothing? “There’s no harm done so long as we don’t stop economic growth,” Allitt says — particularly in the developing world.
“When the Kyoto Treaty was negotiated back in ’97, the rich nations like much of Western Europe were willing to sign on, but industrializing countries like China and India were very reluctant to sign on because they said, ‘What we need more than anything is more industrialization to lift our societies out of mass poverty. Once we’ve done that, then we can show an interest in environmentalism,'” Allitt says.
The Emory professor cautions against any carbon-reduction initiative that hinders the developing world from advancing economically. “Shanghai or New Delhi [are] today like Manchester in England was in 1850 or Pittsburgh, Penn., was in 1890,” he says. “We know that Manchester and Pittsburgh have been very successful in cleaning up once they have the wealth and the political will to do so, and I think it’s reasonable to think that once the Chinese and Indian cities have reached a certain level of wealth, they’ll also turn to cleaning up.”