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Climate Activism, in contrast to Classical Liberalism

In the fall of 1997, the political economics William A. Niskanen, at the time director of the Cato Institute, published an essay that argued against regulating (CO 2) and other greenhouse gases through an international treaty (or different ways). 2 The Kyoto Protocol was just ahead that was a battle between the neo-Malthusian intellectuals and rent-seeking companies (such as Enron or BP) against the modern-day, consumer-driven, high-energy living.

“In December,” Niskanen’s essay 3 began, “policymakers will meet in Kyoto to discuss an international treaty to control greenhouse gases.”

In the absence of knowledge regarding the costs as well as the benefits and alternatives, taking a broad-based regulatory approach is not appropriate. …. In order for this treaty to be worthy of our support, the defenders must prove the validity of each of the following assertions:

1. The continued increase in the amount of greenhouse gases that are artificial (primarily carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere will increase the global average temperature.

2. A rise in the average temperature will result in higher costs than it will bring benefits.

3. Controlling emissions is the most efficient method to avoid the increase in global temperatures.

4. Initial measures to limit emissions are more effective than later measures, either to modify emissions or adapt to temperature changes.

5. Controls for emissions can be effectively controlled and implemented.

6. The governments of the parties to the treaty will be able to approve the necessary control measures.

7. The control of emissions in countries with higher incomes is desirable; even the emissions of countries with lower standards aren’t controlled for several decades.

Condition 1 is most likely completed, but the remaining six conditions have not made a compelling case for the government’s involvement and in favor of free market adaptation. To support Niskanen, Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute wrote at the time 4:

There isn’t a compelling reason to act immediately. …. There are plenty of unanswered questions… the situation seems sensible to attempt to answer the unanswered questions on climate change prior to making significant modifications in Western civilization.

Niskanen offered this perspective in a look back ten years 5. (in 2008.):

With my usual optimism, my 1997 report on global warming stated that we should be able to learn more about this issue over the next 10-20 years. Unfortunately, there has been a rush of the conclusion on this subject without significant improvement in the amount of information upon the basis on which this judgment is based.

A strategy to reduce emissions… could prove expensive and ineffective. …. The rush to decide the most effective reaction to the rising temperature is more dangerous than adaptation.

Steven Horwitz

Steven G. Horwitz’s essay “Global Warming Is About Social Science Too,” 6 included an outline of the most important questions to support a case for intervention by the government.

1. Is the Earth getting warmer?

2. If the temperature is rising, is it due to humans?

3. If it’s warming, to what degree?

4. What are the consequences associated with global warming?

5. What are the advantages that come from the global warming process?

6. Are the advantages worth the cost, or are the prices more than the advantages?

7. If the expenses outweigh those benefits, then what kinds of policies should be considered?

8. What are the prices of the policies created to cut the costs associated with global warming?

Three of the questions pertain to physical science. The final five questions will be for social science researchers and economists to discuss.

With the physical world-changing, Horwitz finds open questions and unsettling responses to forgo the rush to government. The final question (#8) specifically sparked Horwitz’s curiosity. “Even if we design policies on the blackboard that seem to mitigate the effects of global warming,” He says, “we have to consider, first, whether those policies are even likely to be passed by politicians as we know them, and second, whether the policies might have associated costs that outweigh their benefits.”

Public policy continues to be a priority:

Therefore, if in our efforts to lessen the impact of global warming, we slow economic growth enough to increase the poverty of people or give power to governments that could be used in ways that have little or nothing to do with global warming; then we have to take into account the overall costs and benefits of employing policies to combat global warming. This is a matter that is part of the social science that is not less crucial than the scientific ones I started with.

“[I]t is perfectly possible to accept the science of global warming but reject the policies most often put forward to combat it,” Horwitz said. “One can think humans are causing the planet to warm but logically and humanely conclude that we should do nothing about it.”

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Jane S. King

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