Global Warming Threatens Sound Public Policy
John A. Baden, Ph.D, February 21, 2007.
Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment
Bozeman, Montana - The threat of global warming arises on three dimensions: ecological, political, and ideological.
Physical changes to ecosystems have adverse impacts, while public policies dictated by politics rather than sound scientific and economic analysis have perverse and regressive consequences.
The biggest threat of all, though, may come from ideological fundamentalists who constrain public discourse. We've seen precursors of each of these threats, and all may become more serious. Let's consider them in order.
Increasing global temperatures have initiated complex processes that threaten the physical world. Models predict that impacts will be greater at higher latitudes.
These changes are evident in our region, and include extended fire seasons in the Northern Rockies and displacement of plants (whitebark pine), fish (grayling), and animals (mountain caribou). All are linked to well-documented higher average temperatures over the past few decades.
If human contributions to the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a primary cause of global warming, we are in for a long, slow climb with highly uncertain outcomes.
The CO2 currently in the atmosphere will remain there for nearly 100 years. Absent some immediate demographic catastrophe, atmospheric CO2 will probably at least double, and likely more than triple during this time.
Those in the developed world will suffer little from increasing temperatures, for wealth fosters resiliency and adaptability. A few of us will lament the changes in cherished ecosystems, but most won't notice.
There is little of consequence done in Birmingham, Mich., that can't be done equally well in Birmingham, Ala.
Global warming poses a huge threat to sound public policy for three primary reasons.
First, it gives politicians an opportunity to exercise their fatal conceit; an alleged ability to intelligently plan lifestyles and the economy. This has yet to work as hoped, anytime, anywhere, on any large scale. ("This time we'll get it right!")
Second, it gives the self-proclaimed enlightened and sensitive among us an ethical license to impose their visions of how to live on others. ("Let's outlaw SUVs.").
Third, it gives politicians and special interest entrepreneurs, aka political "rent seekers", vast opportunities to exploit state and federal treasuries, taxpayers, consumers, and those not yet born. ("Let's subsidize domestic ethanol by $.51/gal, put a $.54/gal tax on ethanol imports, and mandate its use.")
No telling what damage such political exploitation will do, or when, or whom it will harm.
Intemperate reactions to the specter of global warming further coarsen and corrode America's political culture.
Global warming fosters self-righteous fundamentalism and a belief in Green absolutes. It produces censorship, distortions, and dishonesty, sure signs of intellectual insecurity. Here's a recent example involving individuals I know, like, and trust.
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is an old-line, highly respected Washington, D.C. think tank.
It does no lobbying or contract research. And to protect itself from the "earmark trap," it takes no government money. It surely doesn't speak for the Bush administration, and I find it no further to the right than the Brookings Institute is to the left and these two organizations have several joint programs.
Over the past decade, AEI has published eight books, hosted nine conferences and produced 47 smaller publications on climate change, including 28 policy papers by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center.
Their authors are economists and policy analysts from top universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Yale.
Several have won a Nobel Prize. Given this history, it naturally commissioned scholarly papers on the forthcoming IPCC Report.
The response to AEI's proposed research was remarkably crude, na´ve, and craven. Why? Anyone who fails to sign on to the catastrophic scenario is labeled a "climate change denier," not a policy analyst.
Greenpeace pushed the anti-AEI story and a British newspaper, The Guardian, ran it under the headline, "Scientists Offered Cash to Dispute Climate Study." Columnist Ellen Goodman likened AEI scholars to holocaust deniers.
Al Gore argues that those who challenge his prescriptions should be censored.
Those who "know" they are right about an uncertain, and indeed indeterminate, process are sorely tempted to constrain discourse.
I've seen versions of this movie before, indeed lived it several times, and can predict its ending. Intelligent and honest people seduced by enticements to censor scholarly work are ultimately embarrassed. Truth is stubborn indeed.
Rejoice in this.