I spent the 1980s wandering from national forest to national forest collecting data to help environmentalists reduce Forest Service timber sales. At the time, the Forest Service was clearcutting hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest each year, and I estimated that they were selling twice as much as the forests could sustain.

The Forest Service had been created in 1905 as a part of the Progressive Movement, which sought federal control over natural resources. Its founder, Gifford Pinchot, was later elected governor of Pennsylvania on the Progressive Party ticket, making him the highest elected official in that party.

Clearcutting was enormously controversial. Besides being ugly, it created a harsh environment for reforestation, harmed many species of wildlife, and often led to stream pollution that destroyed fisheries. Ironically, Pinchot himself opposed clearcutting, promising that the national forests would be managed only by selectively cutting individual trees. Yet within 25 years after his death in 1946, clearcutting became the dominant practice in all of the national forests.

The Forest Service had been clearcutting that much timber at least since 1970, when I had graduated from high school. That was the year of the first Earth Day, which had inspired me to study forestry in college so I could save the forests rather than cut them down. I graduated from forestry school in 1974 and immediately went to work for environmentalists who were trying to stop clearcutting, save wilderness, and protect fish and wildlife.

The environmental movement wasn't as well funded in those days as it is today, and I had a lot of very lean years in which I nevertheless developed a large body of research showing that the Forest Service was overestimating how much national forest land was suitable for growing timber, overestimating how fast trees could grow, overestimating how valuable its trees were, underestimating the conflicts between timber cutting and other resources, and completely ignoring the fact that it lost money on most of the timber it sold.

I found many of these problems documented in a Forest Service computer program called FORPLAN, which was used by every national forest to help guide that forest's management practices. A million-acre national forest was far too complicated to model in a computer, so the program simplified the model in many ways. These simplifications inserted agency biases into the model, including biases toward cutting timber when other resources were more valuable and biases towards clearcutting when other cutting methods were more benign.

The question became Why would an agency that had been created in 1905 to provide the "greatest good for the greatest number" end up doing these things? I delved deep into the Forest Service's budgets and discovered that Congress had passed several laws that inadvertently rewarded the Forest Service for losing money on environmentally destructive activities. When it lost money on timber sales, it got a bigger budget. When it designed timber sales that harmed recreation, wildlife, and fisheries, it got a bigger budget to repair the damage. When it made money or did things that were good for the environment, its budget shrank.

I documented these findings in a book titled Reforming the Forest Service that was published by Island Press in 1988. My work and that of other environmentalists had an enormous impact on the Forest Service, which sells 75 percent less timber than it did in the 1970s and 1980s. The agency still responds to its incentives, but it is now more focused on wildfire than timber cutting.

One of the reasons the environmental movement was so successful in the 1980s is that it was very diverse. It included Republicans and Democrats; conservatives and liberals; free-market economists and Marxists; nuclear engineers and loggers. What unified us was a desire to protect the environment and our diversity allowed us to find and use the tools that worked the best for each individual environmental problem.

That changed in the 1990s. When the Soviet Union fell, polls showed that most Americans believe that "government messes everything up," a belief supported by my research on the Forest Service. But polls also showed that the environment was one of the few areas where Americans believed the government needed to intervene.

Soon after 1990, the movement was infiltrated by people who called themselves progressives. They said they wanted to help protect the environment, but they had a clear agenda: make government bigger, even if it harmed the environment. They demonized any environmentalists who didn't support their agenda. At about the same time, foundations started giving large amounts of money to environmental groups, but the money was conditional upon all of them agreeing on a single agenda and a strategy. That agenda, almost by default, became the progressive agenda.

In the 1980s, our focus was to make government smaller and to reduce government subsidies to corporations that were harming the environment. The new environmental movement of the 1990s focused instead on making government bigger and on giving subsidies to corporations that would supposedly help the environment but in fact only enriched the corporations. When I stopped working for environmentalists in the mid-1990s, some people said I betrayed the movement, but in fact it was the movement that had changed.

These experiences taught me several lessons.

  1. Don't trust computer models, which are too complicated for most people to understand and whose complexity allows the modelers to introduce their own biases.
  2. Don't trust government agencies to automatically work in the public interest when their real goals are to maximize their budgets and power.
  3. Don't trust the progressives when they say they want to protect the environment when their true goals are often quite different.

I view the climate change issue through the lens of these lessons. Here we have an environmental problem that is documented mainly by computer models of systems that are hundreds of thousands of times more complicated than a single national forest. Unlike other environmental issues, the problem of climate change is one that apparently can only be solved by making government bigger, making it pretty convenient for the progressives. The solutions offered by the progressives won't significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions but look suspiciously like the things the progressives wanted to do before climate became an issue. Anyone who disagrees with these solutions is shouted down, denied funding, and called names like "denialist."

All of this makes me profoundly skeptical. I'm skeptical that climate change is as serious a problem as the progressives claim (and I'm not the only environmentalist who thinks so). I'm skeptical that government agencies whose goal is to maximize their budgets and power will do anything to fix the problem. I'm skeptical that the progressives' preconceived notions about how we should live are the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And I'm skeptical of any scientific claims when people aren't allowed to debate those claims without rancor.

This doesn't mean I think we should do nothing. While the progressive prescriptions are often dubious, there are many things we can do that will benefit people in other ways while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, the progressives want to reduce auto driving, a goal that long preceded the climate issue, and to do so they want to subsidize construction of things like light rail and high-speed rail. Such construction will release huge amounts of greenhouse gases and there is no guarantee that operating light rail or high-speed rail will save any greenhouse gases.

Instead, we can simply make automobiles that are more fuel efficient, which we already have been doing—autos today use less than half the energy of cars fifty years ago. Doing so reduces people's transportation costs and, incidentally, reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Progressives also think that more Americans should live in high-density cities, an idea that dates back to at least 1965. To accomplish this, they want to impose planning regulations that penalize the construction of single-family homes while subsidizing the construction of multifamily homes. Yet the multifamily housing they build costs several times as much, per square foot, as single-family housing, and requires far more energy to build and operate, per square foot, as well.

Instead, we can build zero-energy single-family homes that use no net energy from the grid and emit no net greenhouse gases. Such techniques add as little as 5 to 10 percent to the cost of constructing homes. Homeowners benefit by reduced electrical and heating bills and, incidentally, greenhouse gas emissions are lower.

Everyone benefits from saving energy, and we can save energy without demanding that Americans make major lifestyle changes. I would support programs, such as tax credits, that focus on the goal of cost-effectively reducing energy consumption rather than ones that blindly make government bigger and more intrusive into our daily lives.

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of several books on the follies of government planning and bureaucracy including The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. His on-line book, The Education of an Iconoclast, tells more about the history of the Forest Service and the environmental movement in the 1970s through 1990s.