Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Say what?

Some climate change activists are fretting because global temperatures have not continued to rise as predicted over the past four years. What happened to rising global temperatures being an imminent threat to human civilization? The activists say that they are concerned because plateauing temperatures create a sense of complacency that makes strong action on greenhouse gas emissions difficult, and perhaps this is so. I can't help but wonder, though, if there isn't, deep down, some anxiety that what climate change skeptics have been saying - that permanent global warming, if it is indeed happening, is due to something other than human activity - might turn out to be true. If that were the case, pretty much the entire scientific community, not to mention every major international environmental organization and Al Gore, would have some serious egg on their faces. Whatever their devotion to truth and rationality, scientists are no less vulnerable than the rest of us to the assorted biases, reasoning errors, and blind spots of human cognition, nor the associated failings of pride and intellectual vanity.

I'm not a climate change skeptic per se - I do think the theory climatologists have articulated about the role of human activity in rising global temperatures makes sense, and there is certainly evidence of rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I do, however, find the more outlandish predictions of doomsayers - New York and other coastal cities inundated by rapidly rising sea levels, regular super hurricanes laying waste to areas in the tropical storm belts, etc. - rather dubious. And I am not convinced that we won't at some point discover that climate change is driven to a greater extent than we currently suppose by things over which we have no control - astronomical cycles, changes in solar activity, etc. Scientific theories that were once widely credited have after all proven wrong before, and more than once. Theories are particularly likely to prove inaccurate in areas of inquiry in which it is difficult to gather data or falsify hypotheses - such as the study of the climate of an entire planet. As the prophets of climate change have staked much of their credibility on the correctness of their diagnosis of this problem and the urgency of their proposed solution, it would hardly be surprising if they found any observable trend which threatened to undermine their claims highly upsetting. Nevertheless, if they are truly concerned for the planet, they ought to be happy about the possibility of their hypothesis being incorrect - after all, if they're wrong, we're avoiding a global cataclysm, and all we'll have to give up for it is a few bruised egos.

The motivations of politicians in regards to this issue are, I suspect, somewhat different. I find it hard to believe that at least some of their sense of urgency in regards to seeking action on climate change NOW derives not from concern for the African children who will starve as a result of the Great Drought of 2050, but from the fact that at the moment they have the opportunity to create a massive, byzantine federal bureaucracy, with all the opportunities for pork, cronyism, and political backscratching that entails. After all, the starving African children of the future are rather an unreliable voting bloc compared to newly minted government employees in your home district, being non-American and juveniles and yet to be born and all that. If the current public perception that climate change is an imminent crisis weakens, the opportunity to create this second class may pass.

If we're going to attempt to reduce carbon emissions (and I think we should, for several reasons), an across-the-board carbon tax is the way to do it. This would require a much smaller bureaucratic apparatus than cap-and-trade or similarly complex administrative schemes, and as it would continually provide revenue said apparatus would be partially if not fully self-funding. It would also allow the markets to work unfettered on answering the question of how to reduce carbon emissions, and save individuals and businesses everywhere a lot of paperwork and lost productivity. The fact that it's a simple resource based tax would it relatively easy to enforce, with none of the special pleading or graft that will undoubtedly occur in an auction for government carbon permits. In short, the carbon tax would accomplish much of what we want, with lower overhead costs and less likelihood of perverse unintended consequences, and if climate change or fossil fuel depletion turn out not to be the threats they are currently perceived to be, it would be easy to alter the tax or abolish it, which methinks would not be the case with an entrenched federal bureaucracy. Granted, a carbon tax wouldn't create opportunities to hand out political patronage, provide government pencil-pushers a hammer with which to distort or profiteer from economic activity, or create additional loyal voters and special interest lobbies, all serious issues for your typical distinguished Congressperson. But hey, no proposal is perfect.

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