All Commentary
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians, and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor

“The only way to create wealth is for people to do useful things for each other.” “[In a free market] the rich become rich only because consumers voluntarily give them money in exchange for the valuable goods and services they offer to society.” “Wealth is only possible through free markets, allowing the people to decide what something is worth to them, rather than allowing government bureaucrats to decide.” “Printing more money creates no new wealth. . . . [I]t lowers the value of all the money that is already in circulation. There is more money chasing the same number of goods and services, which then causes prices to rise.”

None of those statements should come as news to the readers of The Freeman. Such precepts underpin most of what is written in these pages. What is remarkable is that they come in a book on global warming by a well-known climatologist with no training in economics.

Dr. Roy Spencer is the principal research scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. He has a Ph.D. in meteorology and was a senior climate scientist at NASA. Along with his colleague Dr. John Christy, he developed the original method for precise monitoring of global temperatures from earth-orbiting satellites. But unlike many scientists whose work impinges on public-policy debates, Spencer understands the importance of economic analysis in answering the fundamental question: “What should be done?” He recognizes that just because science may indicate a causal connection between human activity and some negative consequence—either for the environment or for other human beings—it doesn’t follow that policies should be implemented to curtail those activities. That is, the answer to the “should” question cannot come from the sciences.

That is why, in the middle of his book about global warming, Spencer includes a cogent and well-schooled chapter on both basic economics and the relationship between freedom and prosperity. The title, “It’s the Economics, Stupid,” conveys the importance he places on economic analysis not only for formulating policies toward global warming but also in determining whether there should be any such policies at all.

Some might interpret Spencer’s excursion into economics as a form of disciplinary imperialism—pontificating in an area where he has no expertise. That would be wrong. In fact, it is an act of disciplinary humility.

In writing this book on climate policy, Spencer realized that his own disciplines—meteorology and climatology—could not provide the answers to the policy questions. He understood that he needed to learn some economics. He did his homework well.

Ultimately though, the book is mostly about science and scientists. Indeed, it’s as much about the latter as the former. Chapters 3 and 4 are especially important. In the former, “How Weather Works,” Spencer addresses basic issues concerning weather, the climate, how the two are different, and how the former determines the latter. This is the background typically ignored in discussions about anthropogenic global warming. In Chapter 4 Spencer’s skeptical stance on global warming is conveyed in the title, “How Global Warming (Allegedly) Works.” Those chapters give the reader a solid, plain-language discussion of the science that almost anyone can understand.

As noted, much of the book is about scientists—their attitudes and the incentives they face. Spencer sets the tone with a cartoon showing three scientists standing in front of a battery of telescopes. The scientist in the middle is introducing a younger colleague to an older, more experienced researcher. The caption reads, “This is Doctor Bagshaw, discoverer of the infinitely expanding research grant.” Spencer spends many pages dragging scientists down off their pedestals. He shows that what they research and what they conclude, particularly in an area like global warming, is as much a function of financial incentives, ideological and religious beliefs, and peer pressure as it is a function of the scientific method.

The past decade has produced a battery of books written on global warming from a skeptical perspective. I have read many of them. What makes Spencer’s book stand out, in addition to its integration of sound economics with sound science, is its readability and sense of humor. It simplifies complex issues in climatology to a point where any reasonably intelligent person can understand them and keeps the reader continuously engaged.

Policies currently being enacted and proposed in the name of fighting global warming represent the biggest challenge to liberty of the last half-century. Those of us who cherish liberty need to come to grips with this issue and be able to discuss its ramifications intelligently. Spencer’s book is a great place to start.

  • Roy Cordato is Vice President for Research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC. He is also a part time faculty member at NC State University where he teaches a primarily Austrian course called Political Economy of the Market Process and is faculty advisor for the Austrian Economics Forum made up of graduate and undergraduate students. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.