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Explaining Climate Policy: When Costs Aren't
From the standpoint of an economist, the logic of global warming is straightforward. There are costs to letting it happen, there are costs to preventing it, and by comparing the two we decide what, if anything, ought to be done. But many of the people supporting policies to reduce climate change do not see the question that way. What I see as costs, they see as benefits.
Reduced energy use is a cost if you approve of other people being able to do what they want, which includes choosing to live in the suburbs, drive cars instead of taking mass transit, heat or air condition their homes to what they find a comfortable temperature. It is a benefit if you believe that you know better than other people how they should live their lives, know that a European style inner city with a dense population, local stores, local jobs, mass transit instead of private cars, is a better, more human lifestyle than living in anonymous suburbs, commuting to work, knowing few of your neighbors. It is an attitude that I associate with an old song about little boxes made of ticky-tacky, houses the singer was confident that people shouldn't be living in, occupied by people whose life style she disapproved of. A very arrogant, and very human, attitude.
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There are least three obvious candidates for reducing global warming that do not require a reduction in energy use. One is nuclear power, a well established if currently somewhat expensive technology that produces no CO2 and can be expanded more or less without limit. One is natural gas, which produces considerably less carbon dioxide per unit of power than coal, for which it is the obvious substitute. Fracking has now sharply lowered the price of natural gas with the result that U.S. output of CO2 has fallen. The third and more speculative candidate is geoengineering, one or another of several approaches that have been suggested for cooling earth without reducing CO2 output.
One would expect that someone seriously worried about global warming would take an interest in all three alternatives. In each case there are arguments against as well as arguments for but someone who sees global warming as a serious, perhaps existential, problem ought to be biased in favor, inclined to look for arguments for, not arguments against.
That is not how people who campaign against global warming act. They are less likely than others, not more, to support nuclear power, to approve of fracking as a way of producing lots of cheap natural gas, or to be in favor of experiments to see whether one or another version of geoengineering will work. That makes little sense if they see a reduction in power consumption as a cost, quite a lot if they see it as a benefit.
A Revealing Cartoon
The cartoon shown below, which gets posted to Facebook by people arguing for policies to reduce global warming, implies that they are policies they would be in favor of even if warming was not a problem. It apparently does not occur to them that that is a reason for others to distrust their claims about the perils of climate change.
Most would see the point in a commercial context, realize that the fact that someone is trying to sell you a used car is a good reason to be skeptical of his account of what good condition it is in. Most would recognize it in the political context, providing it was not their politics; many believe that criticism of CAGW is largely fueled by the self-interest of oil companies. It apparently does not occur to them that the same argument applies to them, that from the standpoint of the people they want to convince the cartoon is a reason to be more skeptical of their views, not less.1
That is an argument for skepticism of my views as well. Belief in the dangers of climate change provides arguments for policies, large scale government intervention in how people live their lives, that I, as a libertarian, disapprove of, giving me an incentive to believe that climate change is not very dangerous. That is a reason why people who read my writings on the subject should evaluate the arguments and evidence on their merits.
I have focused on global warming but the pattern of using something that can be represented as a crisis as an excuse to do things exists in other contexts and across the political spectrum. The general approach is perhaps best summed up in a quote attributed to Rahm Emanuel, back when he was working for Obama:
You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
The argument for sharply increasing federal spending and doing it with borrowed money was that it was an emergency measure made necessary by the economic crisis. For Rahm Emanuel, and presumably his boss, it was an opportunity to do things they would have wanted to do whether or not there was a crisis. The argument for suspending payments of rent and of interest on school loans was that it was necessary to enable people to manage with the lower incomes due to precautions against Covid. For first Trump and then Biden, it was a way of increasing their political popularity with the beneficiaries. Biden remained in favor of it after the crisis claimed to justify it ended.
For an example in the climate context, consider biofuels policy, initially introduced as a way of holding down CO2 emissions. As Al Gore later, to his credit, confessed:
One of the reasons I made that mistake [support for biofuel policy] is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president
Gore and other environmentalists eventually concluded that producing maize and converting it to alcohol produced about as much CO2 as the petroleum it replaced. Nonetheless it is still happening, consuming more than ten percent of the world output of maize. The reason, pretty clearly, is that pushing up the price of maize raises the income of American farmers, making biofuels a policy that neither party is willing to oppose. Think of it as America’s contribution to world hunger.
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
― H.L. Mencken, In Defense of Women
Costs or Benefits of Banning Abortion
I am more likely to notice the pattern of viewing what others see as costs as benefits when it is being done by people I think of as my political opponents, which raises the question of where else it occurs. One example that occurs to me is the effect of banning abortion, a policy popular with people who, in some other contexts, I view as allies.
One consequence of an abortion ban is to make sex, especially non-marital sex, riskier. From the standpoint of someone who enjoys sex that is a cost. But from the standpoint of someone who regards non-marital sex as sinful, as many supporters of abortion bans do, it is a benefit. It may also be a benefit from the standpoint of someone who believes that the sexual revolution had, on net, negative consequences, was responsible for the breakdown of marriage in modern societies, an argument I discussed in an earlier post. Similar arguments apply to the Catholic opposition to abortion, as discussed in a different post.
I do it too. Opponents of educational vouchers see one of the benefits of the public school system, hence one of the costs of replacing it in part with private schools, as creating a common national culture, making sure that all children are taught, in a very general sense, the same things. I see that as a cost; it is harder to eliminate false beliefs if everyone holds them. Better to have diversity in belief in the hope that more nearly true beliefs will tend to win out, even if initially held by only a minority.
The same issue arises in the context of home schooling. Opponent see it as a way in which people with heterodox beliefs, such as religious fundamentalists, can pass their beliefs on to their children. Since I was brought up in a family with heterodox beliefs, although not religious ones, and enjoy interacting with people whose views are very different from mine, I see that as a benefit.
Readers are invited to contribute other examples.