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Climate Policy, The Public Good Problem, and Religion
I have argued in previous posts1 that we have no reason to expect climate change to have large net negative effects. Yet quite a lot of countries are doing expensive things that are defended as ways of reducing climate change: subsidizing renewables and electric cars, forcing the conversion of maize into alcohol, discouraging the production and use of fossil fuels.2
Even if slowing climate change is worth doing, why anyone does it is a puzzle. For countries as for individuals, reducing climate change faces a public good problem. If Canada imposes costs on itself in order to reduce its output of CO2 any benefits are shared with the rest of the world. In order for Canada’s tiny share of the benefits to be worth the cost, benefits must be not only larger than costs, they must be many times larger. Yet not only does the country of Canada adopt expensive policies to reduce CO2 production so does the state of California, whose share of global CO2 output is somewhere around a tenth of a percent.
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Consider another public good problem, one that nations have been failing to solve for a very long time. If all countries cut their military spending in half they would save a great deal of money and relative power should remain about the same. There have been occasional attempts at treaties limiting armaments, such as the naval limitation treaties after World War I, treaties typically confined to a few of the most powerful countries — it is easier to solve a public good problem by coordinated action if it only a few players are involved. But that attempt was ultimately unsuccessful as demonstrated by the arms buildup preceding World War II.
For a different outcome and a possible answer, consider the problem of preventing nuclear warfare. A nuclear power that refrains from using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear opponent — the U.S. in Vietnam or Russia in Ukraine — bears the cost of a more difficult conflict, shares with the rest of the world the benefit of a reduced chance of a future nuclear exchange. And yet, although there are multiple nations with nuclear weapons which have been involved in conflicts with non-nuclear opponents, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki no nuclear weapons have been used.
The explanation might be the amount at stake; preventing the first use of nuclear weapons by an implicit agreement among the nuclear powers is widely viewed as preventing the first step towards nuclear catastrophe. The larger the benefit to producing a public good the greater the incentive to produce it even for an actor who knows he will receive only part of the benefit.That suggests a possible explanation for the behavior of nations with regard to climate change; people who view climate change as not merely a cost but a catastrophe might be willing to support expensive policies to prevent it even if they realize that their production of CO2 is only a small part of the problem.
So one possible explanation is that the people making the decisions believe in not only AGW but CAGW, Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. That leaves the puzzle of why they believe in it if, as I have been arguing, there is no good reason to.
The pattern of policies advocated and adopted might be a clue. The only source of power we have that produces no CO2, is not intermittent and can be expanded without limit is nuclear power. There are arguments for and against it on other grounds but one would expect concern with climate change to shift policy in its favor. Yet at the same time Germany was adopting expensive policies to increase renewables and reduce the use of fossil fuels it was shutting down reactors. California did the same. And while a few campaigners against climate change, such as James Hansen, are pro-nuclear, most are not.
A Public Choice Perspective
So far I have been working on the implicit assumption that governments try to act in the interest of their citizens. Public choice theory, the branch of economics that deals with political behavior, suggests that that is a mistake. The individuals whose decisions determine what governments do, whether voters, legislators, or government officials, can be expected, like the same individuals in the private market, to act for their own objectives not the general good. The mechanism that is supposed to produce government policy in the general interest is democratic voting, but that assumes that voters know what policies have what effects.
Becoming a well-informed voter is not free. It requires you to bear significant costs in exchange for a very small chance of a very small fraction of the benefit of electing the better candidate. It has the risk of leading you to conclusions that make you unpopular with people who matter to you.
It is rational to be ignorant of information that costs more than it is worth. One implication is that people choose how to vote largely on the basis of free information, what everyone around them knows, whether or not it is true. A lot of free information comes in the form of news in newspapers, television, online. People consume news less to get information — most of what they read is irrelevant to how it is in their interest to act — than to be entertained, hence the incentives of the people who provide news are heavily biased in the direction of telling a good story, whether or not entirely true. Climate catastrophe is a much better story than climate change making us a few percent poorer.3
A further implication is that how people vote, more generally what positions they hold, will be determined not by the effect of their vote on electoral outcomes but by its effect on themselves. If a candidate offers a view of the world that makes you feel good about yourself that is a reason to believe him. If the people around you hold views that imply that good people support the positions of one candidate, bad people those of his opponent, agreeing with them makes your life a good deal pleasanter. Your belief about what model of car is best for you determines what car you get but what you believe about climate change has almost no effect on how much climate change happens or what is done to prevent it, so whether a belief is true is largely irrelevant whether it is in your interest to believe it. Daniel Kahan, whose research on beliefs was discussed in an earlier post, found that the more intellectually able someone was, the more likely he was to agree with the position of the group he identified with, whether that meant believing in evolution or not believing in it.
All of this suggests that what people believe and how they vote will be largely determined by what beliefs make good stories, what beliefs make them feel good about themselves, what beliefs are held by those around them, what ideas are pushed by information sources they rely on. My conclusion that climate change is not a serious threat may or may not be correct but it is not inconsistent with the observation that enough people believe it is to make expensive policies to reduce it politically profitable. And to the extent that people’s beliefs reflect group identity, it is not surprising that nuclear power is rejected by identity groups that have long identified it with nuclear warfare and rejected it for that reason.
That way of looking at it suggests that for some environmentalism functions as a religion replacement, a source of a moral pattern in their lives, a reason to believe they are working for good.4 That fits the hostility to nuclear power, since opposition first to nuclear weapons and then to nuclear power is an older tenet of the same faith. It also helps to explain the extreme claims; end of the world prophecies have played an important role in past religious movements; just as in those cases, the failure of one prophecy frequently leads not to loss of faith but a revision in detail, pushing the doom from the observed present to the unobservable future. It also explains why environmental catastrophism is less popular with people who already have a religion they take seriously.
Which suggests that it might be worth looking at the history of past crusades in order to figure out how they solved their public good problem, why large numbers of medieval warriors were willing to abandon their homes and risk their lives in the hope of liberating the Holy Land.
I summarized my arguments in my first post. Later relevant posts are:
Countries active along those lines include some likely to be gainers from global warming, such as Canada and the Scandinavian countries. The notable exception is Russia which, if my calculations are correct, stands to gain the largest amount of land from temperature contours shifting towards the poles and acts accordingly, does nothing to slow warming and is a major producer of fossil fuels.
William Nordhaus, in A Question of Balance, estimates that if we do nothing about climate change it will, by the end of the century, make the world worse off than it would have been without climate change by the equivalent of 2½ % of global GNP.