The Corner

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Libertarians & Climate Change


Over at The New Republic, I am scored by Brad Plumer for suggesting that all of the criticisms leveled at the Cato ad on climate change were loaded with logical fallacies when in fact many were substantial — and well taken. Well, I didn’t say that all of the criticisms were disguised logical fallacies. Regardless, the logical fallacies that prompted the post that caught Plumer’s eye yesterday were primarily found in the comment boards to the links provided. They are also omnipresent in the media coverage of climate change, so I thought they were worth discussing.

While Plumer grudgingly acknowledges that ad hominem attacks and appeal to authority are not dispositive (three of the four comments to his post, however, cheerfully plow through many of the same logical fallacies Plummer sort-of-kind-of disavows), be feels that RealClimate “demolished Cato’s arguments on the merits.” I’ll leave that scientific debate to others. Climate scientist Roger Pielke, Sr., for instance, thinks RealClimate’s critique was well off the mark. I would guess that those who signed our ad would likewise agree, a list that includes notables like Nobel laureate and physicist Ivar Giaever, MIT physicist Richard Lindzen, and others associated with various past IPCC reports. 

More interesting to me is a related post by Ryan Avent over at The Bellows that uses the ad to launch a broader discussion of libertarianism and climate change. Avent’s argument is that libertarians can either accept scientific reality and accept a bigger role for the state or deny scientific reality and reject a bigger role for the state. “Confronted by a problem demanding solutions inimical to libertarian beliefs, libertarians were faced with the choice of reneging on their beliefs or turning their back on science. Tellingly, they chose the latter.”

Avent claims that accepting scientific reality regarding climate change means, at a minimum, “that something should be done, even if that something is simply preparing for the effects of warming.” Well, Cato is not the papacy (different people at Cato have different ideas about appropriate public policy response to climate change), but I should point out that a recent policy study that we published is titled “What to Do about Climate Change,” and it advocates focused adaptation — something that I believe meets Avent’s definition of accepting scientific reality and “preparing for the effects of warming.” As I’ve said here before, one can accept the worse case scenarios about warming — as the aforementioned study does for the sake of argument — and still reject a large role for the state.

The contention, moreover, that anyone who remains skeptical about the disaster scenarios bandied about in the climate debate is “turning their back on the science” mischaracterizes the debate (I’m pretty sure, for instance, that Richard Lindzen would take issue with Avent’s assertion that he is “turning his back on the science”) manifests an unhealthy skepticism about skepticism, and has a short term memory regarding past jihads by scientists and other academic experts to arrest disasters that turned out to be purely imaginary. 

The apocalyptic human and ecological disasters that would allegedly follow from human population growth, for instance, were once as widely embraced in the academic community and the public at large as the disasters we worry about today with regards to carbon emissions. Yet, thankfully, many skeptics “turned their back on the science” (as Avent would put it, although I would put it differently) . . . and some of the human misery that would follow from a larger role for the state was averted (although, unfortunately, not all). 

This is not an isolated example. The claims emanating from the world of ecological science have not stood up well in the past on any number of fronts. Of course, failures on old fronts do not necessarily mean failures on new fronts. But it does mean that skepticism has proven quite useful in the past and that majorities in the academic community are not infallible. To suggest that a movement is intellectually bankrupt if it is not persuaded to grow the state by a show of scientific hands is to suggest that one hasn’t been paid attention to events over the past half-century or so.

But that’s a digression. I fully agree with Avent when he says “A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having.” The unfortunate fact, however, is that fundamental reality regarding the real future impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is anything but clear . . . as even IPCC reports are happy to tell us. Moreover, scientists can’t tell us what to about that reality even if climate scientists could agree about what the future holds in store for us. Answering the “what to do” question requires and examination of costs and benefits, a consideration of the distributional effects from the various strategies that we could implement, and, yes, a judgment about the costs associated with surrendering various degrees of economic and social liberty.

How much should we hedge — economically and socially — against the risk of disastrous climate change? Scientists can’t tell us. Experts can’t tell us. Each person has different risk preferences and a different willingness to pay to reduce risk. Those individual preferences are subjective, meaning there is no objectively correct answer. Unfortunately, we collectively consume whatever response we undertake with regards to climate change. Conflict will thus forever be with us on this issue; those who are risk averse will never be happy consuming the policy preferences of those who are less risk averse and visa versa.  Scientists cannot help in this exercise of collective consumption. At best they can inform. They cannot dictate “correct” responses.