The Antiplanner wrote last Friday’s post in a rush after four days of dealing with near-record low temperatures, so it was probably a bit jumbled. Yet it set off a healthy debate that was both polite and instructive. So let’s continue a bit further.
On Sunday, Chris Matthews asked his guests — Dan Rather, Kelly O’Donnell, Helene Cooper, and Andrew Ross Sorkin — why it is that roughly 80 percent of liberals believe we need climate change legislation while 80 percent of conservatives don’t. Since Matthews and all of his guests are liberals who believe we need climate change legislation, they couldn’t figure it out.
The answer, as I was trying to get across last Friday, is that liberals believe government is good and they want more of it. The climate issue is just one more excuse to justify a bigger government. Conservatives believe government is bad and they want less of it. So, even those who agree that anthropogenic climate change is real are not going to accept that government has a role to play in solving the problem.
(For what it’s worth, I don’t like the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in this context because both are too broad. In the 19th century, “liberal” meant what “libertarian” means today — someone who believed in free markets, free trade, and protection for the rights of minorities. Meanwhile, many conservatives today don’t truly believe in small government. To keep the sides straight, I’ll use the term “progressive” for those who believe in big government and “libertarian” for those who believe in small government.)
Going back to Gifford Pinchot, progressives have used environmental issues as an excuse for big government for well over a century. But most environmental issues have free-market solutions that work far better than government. Worried about declining ocean fisheries? Privatize the fish — it worked in Iceland and New Zealand. Worried about future water supplies? Privatize the water. Those who pathetically believe there is some virtue in having things owned in common — which might work if there are only a few score common owners, but on a large scale guarantees overuse — find the privatization response to every issue annoying.
That’s what makes climate change such a golden issue. What are you going to privatize to stop climate change? Where is your free-market solution now, huh? We finally gotcha! Who cares if we don’t understand the science or the models. Who cares if we are putting our faith in concepts we would absolutely reject if they gave us answers we didn’t like. Who cares if some minor scientists in East Anglia, wherever the hell that is, tried to manipulate data or suppress debate. The important thing is that climate change demands a big-government solution, and progressives like big government.
The libertarians understand the trap the global warmers have laid for them, and they act with near-desperation to avoid it. They offer at least three very different responses to the problem.
First, “global warming isn’t happening.” This depends on critiques of the computer models, the heat-island effect, the monitoring stations, and so forth. (Those who hold this view had a field day with climategate.)
Second, “the earth may be warming, but it is just a natural cycle.” This response relies on data showing both short-term (20-year), sunspot-driven cycles and long-term (millennial) cycles in temperatures. (For what it’s worth, the Antiplanner leans towards this view.)
Third, “anthropogenic global warming is happening, but it will be more efficient to adapt to it than to try to prevent it.” This response points out that, even if everyone follows the Kyoto protocol, the earth will still warm up. Moreover, the costs of trying to limit emissions today would be far greater (especially when discounting the future) than the costs of adapting tomorrow. (The Cato Institute’s Pat Michaels falls into this category.)
Of course, it is never so simple: these three views actually grade into one another. But let’s say you believe in anthropogenic global warming and you believe that, with the right taxes, incentives, and regulations, governments can minimize the damage by forcing people to reduce emissions. Would you support such taxes, incentives, and regulations?
If you are a libertarian, the answer is still a firm “no.” Why? Because you know that government screws everything up. Just look at the shenanigans going on in the health care legislation to see what I mean.
But let’s say you agree there is only a 1 percent chance that anthropogenic climate change is going to cause problems in the future. If you are a progressive, you will still demand that government take action to tax, subsidize, and regulate the economy to reduce that chance. (By the way, Dick Cheney is no libertarian and not even a very good conservative, so the fact that he originated the 1-percent doctrine is not persuasive to libertarians.)
If I could be persuaded that anthropogenic global warming were real and that we can do something about it now, I would theoretically support a revenue-neutral carbon tax (that is, a tax balanced by reductions in income and other taxes so that the government gets no net increase in revenues). But I don’t believe Congress is capable of imposing such a tax. Instead, it wants more money and more power, which means cap-and-trade. Even if Congress went for a carbon tax, it would not keep it revenue neutral.
So, to the extent that global warming might be happening, I fall into the adaptation camp. The numbers I’ve seen suggest this is the economically optimal solution anyway. This is especially true given the risk that it isn’t even happening: mitigation will cost a lot whether it is happening or not, but adaptation will only be needed if it actually does happen. But even if adaptation were not economically optimal, I don’t trust government to come up with a mitigation plan.
In short, the real issue is not, “Is anthropogenic climate change happening?” Even if they could decipher the science behind the debate, which few of them can, the answer to this question doesn’t even matter to either progressives or libertarians.
The real issue is, “What should we do about it?” Progressives want big-government solutions because they believe in such solutions with or without climate change. Libertarians oppose such solutions because they know government does far more harm than good even when the original intentions are sound.