The Corner

Trifecta!

Sometimes somebody writes an article guaranteed to annoy just about everyone,  and this Wall Street Journal piece by Rupert Darwall (author of The Age of Global Warming, a fascinating intellectual and political history of the climate change saga, and—full disclosure—a friend) may fit the bill.

Here is the opening section:

Might it be that it was Ronald Reagan and not Barack Obama who began to slow the rise of the seas? That is one conclusion that could be drawn from a new paper by Canadian physicist Qing-Bin Lu of Ontario’s University of Waterloo. Instead of carbon dioxide emissions, Mr. Lu argues that ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other halocarbons caused global warming. Thanks to the Reagan administration and the 1987 Montreal Protocol, CFCs have been phased out by developed countries. After a lag, Mr. Lu argues that global temperatures peaked around 2002 and predicts they are set to gradually fall over the next five to seven decades.

Upholders of the consensus argue that increased carbon dioxide is the only way to explain rising global temperatures. Now there is a competing explanation, with a chronology that better fits the evidence.

Splendid!  First we have the acceptance of climate change (‘deniers’ enraged), but then the blame for it is shifted onto something other than CO2 (‘warmists’ maddened) . To complete the trifecta, the Reagan administration is credited with having helped save the day  (liberal heads explode).

I will happily leave scientists to fight over the question of whether Mr. Lu is onto anything, but I was struck by Darwall’s conclusion:

Critics of America’s policy on global warming accuse it of being a prisoner of free-market ideology. On the contrary, it was the product of hardheaded pragmatism. A 2007 analysis of the Montreal and Kyoto protocols by Cass Sunstein, who later became President Obama’s head of regulatory affairs, shows why. Of all countries, the U.S. was expected to gain the most from the Montreal Protocol and lose the most from Kyoto. Each $1 billion the U.S. spent complying with Montreal was estimated to yield $170 billion of benefits; for Kyoto, it was a paltry $37 million.

Within the Reagan administration, a key breakthrough came with a cost-benefit analysis by the Council of Economic Advisers that showed the monetary benefits of preventing future deaths from skin cancer far outweighed the costs. When the results were presented to Reagan—together with the proviso that if the U.S. acted alone, there would be little long-term benefit—the president instructed U.S. negotiators to lower the participation threshold at which the agreement would come into force.

George Shultz told me that the Montreal Protocol was a “magnificent achievement.” Former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan described it as perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date. Though not designed to cut greenhouse gases, it has been far more effective at doing so than the Kyoto Protocol.

Mr. Lu’s analysis is sure to come under sustained fire, as it implies the current approach to global warming is scientifically mistaken. Unless halogenated gases not covered by the Montreal Protocol are regulated, the slow temperature decline would reverse. And if he is right that CFCs, not carbon dioxide, have driven global temperatures over the last 40 years, then the Montreal Protocol will achieve far more than anyone envisaged. Chalk up another win for the Gipper.

And wouldn’t that be something?

What really caught my eye, however, in Darwall’s closing section was the reference to cost-benefit analysis.  With something as complex and critical as the climate system, any such calculation needs to show an appropriate degree of humility (something notably missing from the British government’s influential 2006 Stern Review, not least in its inclusion of assumptions that ran centuries into the future) and the “hard-headed pragmatism” to which Darwall refers. Politicians, bureaucrats, profiteers and messiahs on the make may prefer to attach their names to grand schemes and the installation of shiny (if unsatisfactory) new technology now, now, now,  but the better approach is more cautious, less glamorous, more incremental and accepts that there are limits to what we currently know. Thus, to take just one example, toughening a city’s flood defenses in the manner that Bloomberg (for all his scary talk about climate change) failed to do in NYC may offer less opportunity for social control or, for that matter, the approval of the chattering classes, than, say,  the introduction of some high profile climate initiative, but it may actually do some good and, wonder of wonders, represent dollars well-spent.

And that would be something too.

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