Reasons for Global Warming Skepticism

Democrats have developed a cottage industry in ridiculing and condemning Republicans as Luddites. How can any “reasonable” person deny that increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere pose a global threat? Certainly dramatic shifts in average global temperatures will have dramatic consequences within a century for many nations?

But, of course, few skeptics base their arguments on science alone. Critics oppose policies that would restrict current fossil fuel use on a global basis, noting the positive link between energy use and growth and the drastic consequences restricting supplies would pose, especially to already energy-starved regions of the world. Critics suggest a risk/risk approach to the climate change issue: consider the consequences of restricting fossil fuels today versus the consequences of continuing current energy use (with its attendant growth and innovation gains), while relying on those wealth and knowledge gains to make possible adaptations, if needed, at lower costs and pain.

I outlined that approach long ago (see “The Role of Opportunity Costs in the Global Warming Debate” from the 1997 book Costs of Kyoto). Rational analysis always faces those three options: act now to minimize the threat, act now to reduce the impacts of the threat, and delay while knowledge and wealth increase. Note that most of us delay employment while we acquire greater life skills—do Democrats critique that choice for young people?

Republicans, noting how past “crises” have been botched by a rush to act, rather than thinking, view the putative risks of climate change as but one of the many risks. The uncertainties of science, economics, and politics—all relevant if a rational, effective policy is to exist—should suggest to critics (some of them running for president), that rather than damaging our economy, as is happening in Germany and other European nations, we should aggressively seek to remove the regulatory and tax distortions that are slowing entrepreneurial growth.

Taxing U.S. energy use further, and urging other nations to tax their citizens’ use of energy as well, is certainly a debatable policy in a world which is still, for billions, energy poor. Ridiculing those who see enhancing growth as a superior way of meeting America’s challenges (including environmental) is scarcely a thoughtful response to the serious question of growth vs. energy rationing. Or so it seems to this policy skeptic.

Given current technology, and the fragility of politics in almost every difficult policy area, why shouldn’t the U.S. take the lead in encouraging growth and accept the greater energy use that will entail? America might make more efficient technologies more available to the developing world—but not insist they neglect those fuels and energy-intensive technologies most relevant for their stage of development. Greater wealth and knowledge certainly make it easier to address the world’s very real problems, including some occasioned by natural disasters. They also provide greater resiliency to fend them off.

The 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons once feared a disaster for civilization, seeing in the rapid growth of coal use, a pending catastrophic. Jevons saw “peak coal” as a dangerous prospect, for the U.K. and other nations, warning that to build their future on such a rapidly depleting resource was suicidal. Had Jevons’s advice been followed, the benefits of the Industrial Revolution might well never have been realized. Accepting the fossil fuel restriction policies of alarmists today would do the same for our future. Rather than ridicule, the alarmists might join with skeptics to examine policy on a risk/risk decision theory basis.