Sunday, April 05, 2009

Carbon Regulation Skepticism, Variations One and Two

There are two major threads of climate change skepticism. The first argues that climate change is not real, while the second just argues that it's not worth preventing. (Considering the second thread, carbon regulation skepticism might be a more accurate label for these two positions.)

The first thread, hard climate change skepticism, raises scientific objections which are mostly laughed at. The CATO Institute recently put out a full page ad in the New York Times, the the Los Angeles Times, and a few other papers, arguing that the science behind climate change is largely exaggerated.

Politifact raises some problems with this argument. For starters, the ad's citations do not support the ad's claims.

Defending the ad, we have the NRO explaining how sometimes biased minority positions are actually correct. As a post on The New Republic notes, this was not the most persuasive followup.

Ryan Avent describes this as an existential crisis for libertarianism. Libertarians look like fundamentalists when, forced to choose between science and their beliefs, they begin attacking the science. It appears as dogmatic and absurd as, say, suggesting that condoms should not be used in the fight against AIDS.

The soft climate change skeptics aren't necessarily committed to a rejection of global warming at all. Inspired by the Chicago-school libertarians, this group is just interested in the full cost-benefit analysis.

These economics minded individuals realize that cheap, abundant energy is currently pulling most of the world out of poverty and despair (also recommended: Hans Rosling on how industrialization and high populations can be wonderful things). Cheap energy powers everything we aspire to do, whether it be feeding the poor, distributing life saving drugs, or even researching and developing cleaner energy sources.

Because of these benefits to cheap energy, and because fossil fuels still have an extremely high energy return on investment (despite the warning cries from the peak oil/peak coal communities), there are real economic costs to carbon regulation. These are costs climate scientists are not accustomed to evaluating. If we want to approach climate change by changing our energy portfolio, these costs must be scrutinized, weighed against the benefits. Now, as that NRO article points out, people operating outside their discipline can sometimes get things right, but it's still nice to involve the econometricians at this stage, just as we involved the climatologists earlier.

For instance, ask an econometrician if green energy investments might actually help the economy, and they will tell you that this is basically the broken window fallacy. They might also tell you that increasing energy costs primarily affect the poor, and they might ask how many people should we be ready to starve to keep temperatures more stable.

If you believe climate change will lead to irreversible apocalypse, your answer should be "as many as it takes." If that's the ultimate implication of a position, one would hope it was open to a thorough debate regardless of the apparent consensus.

This "soft skepticism" has proven persuasive. I would be surprised if CATO's tack persuaded anyone.