The Politics of Global Warming

Smith Presentation Given at "From the Greenhouse Effect to Ecological Central Planning" organized by the Instituto Bruno Leoni in Milan, Italy, November 29, 2003


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Hysteria over global warming has become one of the most significant threats to economic and technological growth facing civilization.  The modern Malthusians have moved away from their optimistic collectivist roots—in Europe, socialism; in America, early progressivism—to a much darker, more reactionary stance as their faith that tomorrow belongs to them has faded. Once the Left sought power and privilege arguing that they would deliver heaven here on Earth.  Their failure to make collectivism deliver—and the general disillusionment that accompanied this failure—led them to despair that change would prove beneficial to them.  Thus, they adopted a status quo philosophy.  Change is now to be avoided, and the engines of that change—economic and technological growth—must be stymied.  Environmentalist advocacy of catastrophic global warming fears must be read in this light.  If they can persuade people that a great catastrophe awaits us if we continue to progress, then they will be better able to thwart the advance of civilization and the growth of economic liberalism.  It is important that they not succeed, and, thus, this conference is very important indeed.


Earlier papers in this conference dealt with the science and economics of the catastrophic global warming issue.  The general results are that climate change science cannot now predict much of anything.  We’ve learned much over the last decade but that learning has increased—not reduced—our uncertainty about the causes of climate change.  The extent to which anthropogenic factors are significant also remains uncertain.  At best, the scientific case for immediate action to curtail energy use around the world is unproven.  The elaborate General Circulation Models, on which most fearful scenarios are based, are complex but they are far from reality.  Indeed, climate change models are no more likely to predict the future than their equally elaborate and flawed macroeconomic counterparts. 


On the other hand, the economics of the issue are fairly settled and far from alarming.  Climate is a serious threat only in those nations that remain underdeveloped.  Wealth and knowledge have allowed societies to prosper under a broad range of climatic conditions.  This suggests that resiliency style insurance is most appropriate to highly uncertain risks. The prevention strategy advanced by the global warming hysterics would do little to change anything, while weakening our ability to gain the wealth and knowledge essential to addressing all risks.  After all, poverty, disease, war, and demographic transition problems are all risks that pose major threats to people around the world with far greater certainty.  Those risks are better managed in a world that is wealthier and smarter.


My talk thus moves to the third element of the policy debate:  the political issues surrounding the global warming debate.   As others have noted, Kyoto was, in many ways, designed to fail—and it has.  The challenge is to translate that failure into a more enlightened effort to address whatever future global environmental problems we may face.  What should we do, now that even Kyoto’s advocates seem reconciled to its demise? 

[1] A talk given at the conference, “From the Greenhouse Effect to Ecological Central Planning,” organized by the Instituto Bruno Leoni in Milan, Italy, November 29, 2003.