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Friday, December 8, 2006

Global Warming and the Layman

Global warming is a divisive issue. People are either believers or skeptics, with each side viewing the other with apprehension. I’ve sided firmly with the skeptics, but lately I have had a nagging concern. Like most people, I am not an atmospheric scientist. I have no firsthand way to evaluate a scientific claim for or against the existence of global warming. So what grounds have I for believing what one scientist says against the thesis over what another one says in favor of it?

No good grounds at all.

I know why I have preferred the skeptical scientists and science writers, but the reasons aren’t good ones because they aren’t scientific. Instead they are based on extraneous things, such as the environmentalists’ previous faulty record of predictions, or the typical statist approach to dealing with global warming, or the respective sides’ presumed attitudes about industrialism.

It is true that many environmental nightmare scenarios are of doubtful worth because they are based more on bad economics than on science. The overpopulation hysteria is one that thankfully has subsided. Likewise, predictions about the depletion of resources are refuted by sound economic theory and the ultimate resource arguments deployed by the late Julian Simon.

But a series of bad predictions doesn’t mean the latest environmental prediction is necessarily wrong. For one thing, atmospheric scientists who warn about climate change are not necessarily the same people who warned about overpopulation and resource depletion. Moreover, even someone who has made bad predictions in the past may get the next one right.

More than a few reputable scientists see potential problems in the climate change that is occurring. The presence of shrill alarmists shouldn’t overshadow them. Thus the issue needs to be evaluated on its merits. I know of no a priori reason to rule out the possibility that human activity is producing enough greenhouse gases to warm the atmosphere to an extent that will have bad consequences. That doesn’t mean it’s happening, just that it’s not impossible.

For every factoid about ice sheets or sea levels or sun spots I can pull from the skeptics’ literature, someone else can produce a counter-factoid. How is a nonscientist to decide which is accurate?

This is not to say the skeptics don’t raise apparently compelling points. They do, and the believers should address them. But that still leaves the problem of how a layman is to sort the wheat from the chaff.

For advocates of individual liberty it is tempting to believe the skeptics are right because the other side is associated with statist solutions to climate change. Most solutions call for government control over the burning of fossil fuels. No advocate of free markets can be comfortable with a position that entails substantial taxes and subsidies to achieve a political objective — reduction of carbon emissions — especially when the solutions promise no more than negligible reductions in temperature. (Temperature, not emissions per se, is supposed to be the believers’ cause for concern.)

But picking sides in a scientific debate on the basis of proposed remedies is the wrong way to go about things. A believer in global warming could get the science right but the remedy wrong. That government shouldn’t ban smoking doesn’t mean smoking isn’t bad for you. There is nothing incoherent about favoring free markets and thinking that global warming is a problem.

Liberals should be careful about accepting the environmentalists’ package deal. Do we really want to concede up front that there are only statist solutions to the possible threat from climate change? That would betray a lack of confidence in the freedom philosophy and the market process.

Skeptics often portray believers in global warming as anti-industrial, anti-free-market zealots who shelve objectivity because they want to usher in an era of primitivism and totalitarian control. Maybe some of them are and do. But all of them? That’s hard to believe.

The Corruption of Politics

Skeptics often attribute the preponderance of research supporting the believers’ thesis to the corrupting influence of government finance. I have no trouble believing that the politicization of scientific research creates an advantage for doomsayers. Power isn’t likely to flow from benign findings. But does that in itself mean all gloomy forecasts about climate change must be wrong? I don’t think so. It strains credulity to think that every scientist who believes hazardous manmade global warming is happening has prostituted himself for a government grant. To prove that unlikely charge you need more than abstract arguments about perverse incentives. Assuming good faith in one’s opponents seems a more fruitful approach.

So we’re back to my question. How can someone without a great deal of atmospheric knowledge cherry-pick from the reams of positive and negative claims about global warming?

Some things seem reasonable to accept: first, that the earth is warming and, second, that human activity is partly responsible. Most scientists associated with skepticism acknowledge these points. The open question in both cases is: how much? Another question is whether the effects of climate change will be good, bad, or a mixture of good and bad. On both questions I am in no position to say. Maybe no one is — not even eminent climatologists — at least not today.

This much I know: these are highly complex empirical questions. They are not a political, ethical, or ideological questions. Thus the answers must be left to the scientific process, preferably untainted by government control.

In the meantime, laymen committed to individual freedom have their own question to attend to: If potentially harmful manmade climate change is occurring, how can it be addressed without violating liberty? Our energy should be invested in answering that question. A good start is made in this series of articles by Shikha Dalmia, Donald Boudreaux, and Julian Morris, published by the Reason Foundation. I also recommend this thought-provoking paper (pdf) by Edwin Dolan, published in The Cato Journal.

The free-market literature is filled with reasons to lack confidence in government solutions to environmental problems. Those reasons include the perverse incentives and inadequate knowledge that pervade all political processes. Any bureaucratic program will be corrupted by power, privilege, and incompetence. So now is the time for us libertarians to direct our unique philosophy toward grappling with potential climate hazards in a manner consistent with freedom and the requirements for prosperity.

Why freedom? Because being able to lead a self-directed life is too important to trade away for the faint promise of a cooler climate (assuming we even want that).

And why prosperity? Because poverty kills — we can be certain of that — and wealth makes us resilient.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.