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Serious about climate change?
Posted by: Bryan Pick on Thursday, February 15, 2007

Climate change has become a hot topic lately, but since I've been swamped with work lately, I haven't had much time to weigh in. I also haven't been able to read for leisure besides a few blog posts per day, and when I don't have time to read around about a particular subject, I usually leave it to others.

This is especially true of climate change, actually, since there's a great deal to learn about the science behind the issue that I simply haven't had the time to delve into. I'm no climate expert, and I don't pretend to be. I can't compare one scientist's work to another's, except to say which sounds more plausible to my untrained mind.

However, the debate isn't just about science. The reason the debate is so heated isn't that the science is so incredibly captivating, it's because the political and economic stakes are extraordinarily high. That's more my arena, and since so many people seem to be convinced that global climate change is politically actionable, it's past time that everyone debating the issue clarify what they're really talking about.

To be in favor of taking political action on global climate change, it seems to me that you have to accept all of the following as true (I apologize ahead of time for using the word “probably” so much):
  1. Global climate change is probably occurring, and more specifically is probably following a trend that will continue in a particular direction for some time to come.
  2. This climate change trend is probably going to impose more costs than benefits on our society (however you define “our society”).
  3. Political action can probably lower the costs of this change.
  4. Political action now will probably be less costly than acting later.
  5. Political action on climate change is probably more cost-effective than alternative uses of resources.
Now, it seems to me that that's a high set of hurdles to jump to make the case for taking action on global climate change. Based on my own (perhaps cursory) reading the last few years, it's rare to see anyone attempt (with some seriousness) more than two of these hurdles at once. After all, who's so well-acquainted with climatology and political economy that he or she can answer to all of the above? There's a lot to discuss here, so keep reading below the fold.
Since I'm not qualified to dig deep into the first premise (“climate change is occurring”), I won't comment on it except to say that even this premise still has less consensus than climate change activists would like to believe. I get a bit incredulous when I hear pronouncements like,
By every measure, the U N 's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raises the level of alarm. The fact of global warming is "unequivocal." The certainty of the human role is now somewhere over 90 percent. Which is about as certain as scientists ever get.

I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.
Others have taken it upon themselves to fight over these points ad nauseam (Mark Steyn for one). I don't intend to do so.

The second premise, though, seems to be an even bigger challenge for climate change activists. Who's done the economic breakdown of all the possible changes that will occur with given changes in the climate? How exact are the estimates of how much damage will be done by a(n estimated) rise in sea level, or by (estimated) increased storm activity? Who claims to know, with any degree of certainty, how all the complex systems of the world (including all the myriad ecosystems and all the countries and interwoven markets) will respond to climate change? There are countless actions by political and economic actors that could be more or less costly, and predicting the ones that will prevail is nigh impossible. This is compounded by the fact that we'll have means for dealing with these problems in the future that we don't have now, but I'll go into more detail on that later.

But let's say that we jump this hurdle and somehow estimate that the costs of climate change will outweigh the benefits for our society, however wide the range of estimates may be. Then we come to the third premise, which is that political action can, on the whole, lower the costs of this damage. Unsurprisingly, I have my doubts. There are many policies a given government could take to mitigate the costs of global warming, but how sure are we that the government's solution will be (a) successful at mitigating damage from climate change and (b) less costly than the problem itself? We don't want the cure to be deadlier than the ailment, after all.

And considering the uncertainty that's built up over the first two premises (regarding whether the “problem” exists, and what it will likely cost without political intervention), isn't the degree of our ignorance a bit troubling already? What are the chances that a given government will get the incentives and constraints wrong, or will overestimate its ability to enforce compliance (and underestimate the costs)? Do you suppose some unforeseen costs of venality and pure bureaucratic red tape might arise in an institution tasked with managing the massive costs and outlays associated with “managing” climate change? My answers to these three questions are, respectively, “Yes”, “Pretty high”, and “It's not hard to envision.” If you have different answers, enlighten me... as soon as you pass the next two hurdles.

Why are climate change activists so confident that political action now is a brighter idea than acting later? I'm not just talking about the likelihood that we'll learn more about the climate and thus know better how to respond. I'm also talking about the costs of responding now as opposed to later. You'd have to have been living under a rock your entire life not to believe that technology is advancing by leaps and bounds (whether or not you buy into explanations like, say, Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, which would change most of this argument dramatically). Consequently, unless you're talking about some dramatic tipping point (a la “The Day After Tomorrow”), it's usually easier to do something later than it is to do now, simply because you have more tools available to you.

[I]f this ecological disaster is going to hit in thirty or fifty or one hundred years, they (and we) will be much wealthier, and better-equipped to handle itFor example, maybe two years from now we'll have some dramatic battery capacity advancement, or a breakthrough in alternative energy of some kind. In that case, spending $1 billion in the future might beat what we can accomplish with $5 billion today. We just don't know, and worse, any action we take today might impact whether we attain that breakthrough tomorrow; for example, increased taxes or forced buying of carbon credits could soak up money that might have gone into research and development. If government decides to get behind one kind of alternative energy or fuel, investment that would have gone into a more promising technology could be drawn away toward the state-backed standard.

Furthermore, the economy keeps growing, and is growing at a particularly rapid clip in some parts of the “developing world.” Hundreds of millions of people are clawing their way out of extreme poverty around the world, and it's pretty safe to say that if this ecological disaster is going to hit in thirty or fifty or one hundred years, they (and we) will be much wealthier, and better-equipped to handle it than we would be if this disaster was striking now. Which brings me to the sixth hurdle: whether political action now is more cost-effective than alternative spending of our resources.

There are all kinds of problems in the world at which would-be social engineers are eager to throw resources. The question of whether these problems exist is often less controversial than whether anthropogenic climate change is occurring; we all know AIDS and malaria exist, and we all know about water shortages and famines and so on. We're quite familiar with the costs of these phenomena, and we can study the costs and effectiveness of various “solutions” that we've tried in the past.

And since we don't have an infinite amount of resources (like money and competent experts in a given field), we'd do well to set priorities. This isn't a terribly original idea on my part; Bjorn Lomborg talks about it along the lines of his Copenhagen Consensus (link to video at TED). But whatever you may think of Lomborg or his specific numbers or methodology, the basic, underlying point stands: if you've got a limited amount of money to burn (and you do), it's not enough that the money helps solve a problem. The fact that you spend money on that has an opportunity cost—all the other things you could be doing with that money, including investing it in your own personal development or that of your children.

So what is the case, then, for spending our resources on mitigating the effects of climate change? Are we that certain about the costs of climate change and of our possible solutions to that problem, that we're willing to discuss not only many billions or even trillions of dollars of costs, but also who should bear those costs? What are the estimates, then, and how were they calculated? How did the authors of those estimates take into account future, as-yet unknown innovations and responses to the various costs and benefits of climate change? Why are climate change activists (apparently) so confident that theirs is a smart issue on which to take political action?

I look forward to your comments. For more discussion on these topics, check out the Becker-Posner Blog (here, here, and here) and Cafe Hayek (here and here).
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Previous Comments to this Post 

I believe that the key to the whole issue is your Item 2. That is not a bug, it is a feature. All around the world there are folks who see in taking action against global warming(TM) a way to divert the anticipated money to their favorite liberal project. You name the project and I’ll show you how you can frame it so that some of that river of money can be diverted to be spent on it. In the feeding frenzy, one might even get money to save the whales. I’m sure if we offered some money for scientific studies we could get a “consensus” of scientists to agree that saving the whales is a vital element in controlling global warming(TM). Also some for more ice for the bears. And... And...
Of course, in order to maintain our international consensus, we would have to have money for whatever pet project each element of our constituency would demand in order for them to sign on. Who knows, we might even end up with the vast majority of funds going to these efforts only to discover that the planet really does need some actual climate change help. Then we would have to redouble the fundraising.
Liberals are uniting behind this effort because they see in it a way to start getting more funding for their particular environmental or touchy/feeley project. Not to mention getting the government into the controlling position needed to take enforceable action on the whole laundry list of liberal causes. Who cares whether or not the damned planet is really warming; there is money to be had and (this is the key part) an idea around which we can coalesce to roll ALL the liberal logs. International even! (International is so good). It. (to quote Professor Erb) Is. A. Consensus.
Written By: notherbob2
URL: http://
Congratulations on a thoughtful post that actually looks at all (or almost all) the major parts of this issue. I just wish this could have been a little shorter, but that probably was not possible.
Written By: Rory Daulton
URL: http://
Notherbob, another group that likes "action" are the hairshirt people who think we are too well off or that they can redistribute income/increase equality via action against global warming.
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
There is a whole global warming movement now that is invested in top-down "solutions" to the phenomenon for a whole host of reasons that are not entirely based on science.

From their rhetoric, the casual reader or listener could be forgiven for assuming that American intransigence is the only thing perpetuating global warming.

When pressed to explain, substantively, how their solutions would actually work to reverse the phenomenon, especially in light of the fact that China and India are exempt from Kyoto, and the fact that signatory nations have actually done a worse job than the US in controlling emissions, according to the Kyoto benchmarks, these people usually duck the question by conflating their critics with the people who deny that warming has occurred.
All around the world there are folks who see in taking action against global warming(TM) a way to divert the anticipated money to their favorite liberal project.

After 9/11, the Left’s response was that the attacks proved the need to "address the root causes." Of course, once you scratched the surface of this buzz-phrase, it turned out that it translated into adopting the Left’s foreign policy agenda, regardless of whether that agenda actually addressed any of the cult religious issues that were motivating motivating the terrorists.

I think we are seeing the same thing with global warming: We need to address the "root causes" of global warming by adopting the Left’s economic agenda, and not worry too much about how that agenda actually matches up scientifically with the drivers of the problem.

This is the type of thinking typified by Oregon’s governor, who wanted to issue an edict defining the problem politiclly, so that they could get busy with the solutions without having to get bogged down in a lot of science.

Written By: Aldo
URL: http://
A few thoughts:

1. The 1% Rule. Deglaciation of Greenland and Antartica would have demonstrably catastrophic effects. There is some evidence that the IPCC report was excessively conservative on the likelihood of rapid deglaciation, because the current models do not accurately capture the rate at which flows are increasing.

2. Increasing energy security by diversifying our energy portfolio. There’s a little scrap going on in the Middle East right now and one of the reasons we’re interested is that the resources beneath the sands of that country are vital to our economy.

3. Kick-starting relevant research. For example, maybe two years from now we’ll have some dramatic battery capacity advancement, or a breakthrough in alternative energy of some kind.
precisely. But really basic research tends to be funded by the federal government, whether through university grants, DARPA grants, NAS / NIH grants, etc.

4. Low-hanging fruit. The business community has been persistently totally wrong in adequately pricing the cost of environmental controls. Once a discharge is no longer free, it has turned out again and again to be the case that a tremendous amount of the discharge can be captured for far less than what the business community’s experts expected.

5. Leadership. So Kyoto was a bad idea. California’s AB 32 may well be a good one. As local governments demonstrate effective cap-and-trade programs, it becomes easier to pressure other governments, including China and India, to join in.

Written By: Francis
URL: http://

"Increased snowfall over a large area of Antarctica is thickening the ice sheet and slowing the rise in sea level caused by melting ice.

A satellite survey shows that between 1992 and 2003, the East Antarctic ice sheet gained about 45 billion tonnes of ice - enough to reduce the oceans’ rise by 0.12 millimetres per year."

Written By: Blue
URL: http://
Bryan—this is absolutely the type of analysis that never seems to get done with regard to climate change. From what I’ve found, some of the evidence for climate change in and of itself is pretty credible, but the claims others *cough* Gore then attribute to that evidence are simply not plausible.

I had it up here a few days ago—the UN’s own report states that under a worst-case scenario for CO2 increase, which itself may be produced under some flawed methodology, only accounts for a sea level increase of 2.3" per decade in the 21st century. I used to live in the flattest, lowest part of south Florida and I’m 99.9% sure that a change of that magnitude would have no significance to my old house. Hurricane experts frequently point out that cyclical effects over the oceans have much more impact on the strength and number of storms than climate change, so on and so forth.

It’s easy for people to get worked up into a frenzy and demand action now when they get pointed in that direction and think that if we don’t do something, it will mean the end of civilization. The problem is getting someone convinced of this to rationally look at the evidence without thinking you’re out to kill them.
Written By: Matt
There is some evidence that the IPCC report was excessively conservative on the likelihood of rapid deglaciation, because the current models do not accurately capture the rate at which flows are increasing.
There was some evidence to that effect. However, right about the time the IPCC summary (not the full report) came out, more evidence came out. In particular, in the last the year "rapid deglaciation" stopped in some areas, making the IPCC models seem not conservative enough.

These games can always be played, trying to recalculate a trend by shifting the baseline. I, for one, am waiting for the full report to come out in May, so we can see just what the summary is based on, whether it accurately reflects the report and the data.
Written By: Rory Daulton
URL: http://
Well I for one AM SERIOUS about climate change..I leave my refridgerator door open and drive two HUGE SUV’s to work, every day, it takes a while walking back and forth between the two, but the abysmal gas mileage is worth it...I burn a 200 litre barrel of light sweet crude in my backyard EVERY day. How much more serious can I be about it? What are YOU ALL doing to make the planet warmer?
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
"What are YOU ALL doing to make the planet warmer?"

For my part, you can ask my wife, who will testify that I am constantly trying to heat the outdoors by leaving as many doors and windows open as possible. I also go to great lengths to personally generate as much greenhouse gas as possible. My wife will testify to that, also, although she uses the term outhouse gas.

I came across this line in one of my researches and, tacky though it may be, I must share it, particularly with any musicians.

"The pitch of the flatulence outburst can also be affected by the anal embouchure."

Try not to think of that when the trumpet sounds its call.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Bryan, you have left out the single most important point, call it point 0: Global warming is being caused / significantly affected by human activity, and the human activity in question is a function of technology rather than increasing population. In other words, the solution isn’t an 80% kill of human life.

There is unmistakeable evidence that Mars is also warming, and that solar output is increasing. Unless you believe that Barsoomian air cars are a factor, you must consider that the Sun trumps all.
Written By: SDN
URL: http://

Actually, I don’t consider it necessary that climate change activists believe humans are causing all the warming. Regardless of the cause of the climate change, the important article of belief is that political action can lower the costs of that climate change.

That belief is usually closely connected with your "point 0," granted. For example, if one believes we caused warming via greenhoouse gases, then it’s not a huge leap to believe that cutting back on those gases will reduce the warming.

But "point 0" isn’t absolutely necessary to activism, so I didn’t include it.
Written By: Bryan Pick
"Regardless of the cause of the climate change, the important article of belief is that political action can lower the costs of that climate change."

Let’s hope it’s not same kind of political action that ends poverty, hunger or war.

My point would be that there are so many more significant things to worry about with respect to humanity on this planet. As an example, IMHO we would be better of moving the money we might spend on global warming to education.

That alone would probably have a greater positive impact on the environment.
Written By: Blue
URL: http://

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