28 Jul 2008

Precautionary Party

Bob Parks writes:
Suppose, I asked myself, that the deniers are right and the CO2 thing is a mistake? What will happen if the world takes the CO2 thing seriously, adopting common sense measures to counter anthropogenic warming and there never was any warming in the first place?
  1. there will more non-renewable resources to leave to our progeny;
  2. we will breath cleaner air and see the stars again, the way we saw them half a century ago;
  3. we could stop paving over the planet, and
  4. cut down on the number of billionaires.
If we’re wrong we could have a party. We could have a party either way.
Bottom Line: I support policies that might reduce AGW when they will definitely improve other things.


  1. 5. Slow economic growth will force billions of people to live in extreme poverty well into the next century.

  2. 6. Frying to death is also bad for the economy (as well as bad for one's health). So let's not fry to death!

  3. I'm a little surprised Zetland didn't make Random Stuff's point.

    There may well be environmental benefits to certain responses to AWG even if AWG turns out not to be true, but there are going to be economic costs as well, and economists shouldn't let people get away with bad "free lunch" arguments.

    I'm also immediately suspicious of anyone who views "fewer billionaires" as a good thing.

  4. In no particular order:

    1) If we turn out to be wrong, and then lift the CO2 taxes, that won't mean cleaner air: if oil is still cheaper than wind power (and it will be, if it has no environmental tax), people will still prefer that.

    2) Ditto for the non-renewable resources, and, I'd add, efficiency. People need to ditch the notion that if everything's more efficient, our energy use will go down. Look up the Jevons Paradox. If all I see is that I do the same things as before (lighting, driving, etc.), that shows up as more free money for me, which I go apply to -- wait for it -- something that uses energy!

    (As usual, this is another case where Bob Murphy uses poor logic to show how a libertarian world handles global warming: higher efficiency does not mean less fossil fuel use; it means more. Murphy just gives credence to Kevin Carson's view that vulgar libertarians are more interested in shoving costs onto others, than in defining just property rights in scarce resources.)

    3) "Less billionaires" *as such* is not a desirable social goal. Less ways to get rich by violating others' rights? Good. Less billionaires irrespective of how they got there? Bad. David, don't let stuff like that slide.

    4) Your bottom line scarce me: defining rights in the atmosphere should be used to give certainty toward people, and enforce the max limit the planet can handle, not to enact someone's wish list.

  5. David,

    My reaction to this I'm sure is predictable, but yeah, I am surprised that you reproduced this guy's comments with so little critique. This notion that a carbon tax will only hurt billionaires is ludicrous. If gasoline goes to $8 per gallon that's not going to make Bill Gates cry, but it will really hurt middle class and poor people.

  6. Hey guys (gals?) -- lighten up. That's Bob Parks's perspective. Sure, I think that the billionaire comment is a cheap shot.

    But, no, I do not think that ending stupid policies is a bad thing. The "economic growth" argument drives us to consider interesting questions on WHAT goes into GDP, the distribution or growth, the unmeasured impacts of economic activity (most important being negative externalities), etc.

    My "free lunch" on this one is ending subsidies for fuel consumption, e.g., in Mexico, Indonesia, Iran, Venezuela, etc. In the US, we have massive subsidies for roads that should be reduced to encourage (a la Bob Murphy) the correct level of spontaneous order...

    @Silas -- I agree on the paradox, but don't understand how you are interpreting my bottom line.

    @Bob -- the pain *might* accrue to the poor, but not if there's tax and rebate.

    Party on!

  7. I look at action to prevent climate change as a gamble. You take the bet if the expected reward is equal to or greater than the cost.

    So suppose that the cost of acting is X, that the cost of rampant climate change will be Y, and that the probability of rampant climate change without action is P. Then the expected return on not acting is Y * P.

    Now, I'm not a climatologist, and this is about choosing whether or not to trust climatologists, so I have no idea what P is. But I do know that the break-even point is X/Y.

    So, the way I look at it (though I am not an economist, so correct if I'm wrong), my confidence that action is necessary needs to only be X/Y in order to rationally support action against climate change.

  8. @jjensejii -- "So suppose that the cost of acting is X, that the cost of rampant climate change will be Y"

    For *this post* I am assuming that Y=0. What X should we do? X when the cost is negative, i.e., the benefits from action (e.g., ending subsidies) are positive, after taking the costs into consideration.

  9. My two bits:

    5. If we enact a rebated carbon tax, we will have improved the economy by slashing taxes on income, capital and labor.
    6. We will have increased welfare by increasing competition and efficiency in the power sector.
    7. We will have increased welfare and water supplies by clarifying water rights, expanding water markets and increasing competition and efficiency in the water distribution sector.
    8. We will have ended our environmentally destructive use of coal (massive land, air and water disturbances).
    9. We will shifted a great deal of our power generation to nuclear power (including multiplying energy extraction and reducing waste via breeder reactors), which is far safer and environmentally benign that any other energy source.
    10. We will have shifted a great deal of our transportation energy to non-polluting hydrogen-based fuelcells or to liquid hydrogen, (making use of nuclear power and renewable energy for hydrolysis).
    11. We will have found ways to protect (and foster biodiversity in) tropical forests and coral reefs, and to better manage wildlife in temperate zones.
    12. We will have found ways to abate NIMBYism through setting up statutory compensation schedules for those living near new infrastructure.

  10. 13. We will have figured out hw to cooperate better with other countries in order to accomplish joint aims, including how to cooperate to increase the rule of law, capital formation and wealth in developing countries.

    Finally, of course, the CO2/GHG/carbon black thing is not a mistake; just look a ocean acidification, ice sheet melting, the tropics shifting, the West drying out, and the latest synthesis impact report from the feds: http://www.climatescience.gov/Library/sap/usp/public-review-draft/.


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