Ryan McMaken – July 18, 2018
For decades, the general strategy of anti-global warming activists has been to maximize predictions of apocalypse, death, and destruction. This over-the-top approach has been used to promote the idea that virtually no cost is too high when it comes to implementing global governmental control of all human activities in the service of avoiding climate change.
After all, what use is cost-benefit analysis when you’re faced with the apocalypse? Ultimately, the message is no more complicated than this: either hand over control of the economy to a small elite of climate planners, or we’re all going to die.
This sort of thing is a propagandist’s dream of course, but in real life, where more rational heads — on occasion — prevail, the costs of any proposed government action must be considered against the costs of the alternatives.
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For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that many predictions of global warming are true. Nevertheless, if we are to be convinced that climate activists and their friends must be allowed to seize control of the global economy — and impose wealth-decimating regulations on us —we must first ask and answer the following questions:
- What is the cost of your plan to various populations in terms of the standard of living and human lives?
- Is the cost of your plan greater than or less than the cost of other solutions, such as the gradual relocation [of] populations from coastal areas?
- Can you show that your plan has a very high probability of working, and if not, why should we implement it when we could spend those same resources on other more practical solutions and more immediate needs such as clean water, food, and basic necessities?
The response to these questions has often been “just trust us, you anti-science troglodyte! You’re wasting valuable time. In fact, if you don’t do as we say right now, you’re all the more sure to die horribly.” In situations like these, questioning the proposed solutions and strategies aren’t even acceptable. There’s a pre-packaged policy agenda that will “solve” the global warming problem, and you can either take it or leave. If you “leave it” of course, you’re “anti-science” regardless of your actual opinion about the science.
Not surprisingly, though, even people who are sympathetic to warnings about global warming — and who are hardly libertarians opposed to all forms of government intervention — have found this approach to be less than constructive.
Humanity Is Already Pursuing Solutions to Environmental Problems — Without a Global Climate Bureaucracy
Many better-informed observers on the matter have noticed that human ingenuity has been faced with a great many very difficult challenges. And, while human history is hardly a non-stop parade of grand successes, there are enough successes in there to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the climate-change narrative of impending-apocalypse is misplaced.
And it appears that the Apocalypse Party may be loosing the rhetorical war.
Last month, Scientific American published “Should We Chill Out About Global Warming?” by John Horgan which explores the idea “that continued progress in science and other realms will help us overcome environmental problems.”
Specifically, Horgan looks at two recent writers on the topic, Steven Pinker and Will Boisvert.
Neither Pinker nor Boisvert could be said to have libertarian credentials, and neither take the position that there is no climate change. Both assume that climate change will lead to difficulties.
Both, however, also conclude that the challenges posed by climate change do not require the presence of a global climate dictatorship. Moreover, human societies are already motivated to do the sorts of things that will be essential in overcoming any climate-change challenges that may arise.
That is, pursuing higher standards of living through technological innovation is the key to dealing with climate change.
Boisvert, in an essay titled “The Conquest of Climate” in Progress and Peril, begins:
How bad will climate change be? Not very.
No, this isn’t a denialist screed. Human greenhouse emissions will warm the planet, raise the seas and derange the weather, and the resulting heat, flood and drought will be cataclysmic.
Cataclysmic—but not apocalyptic. While the climate upheaval will be large, the consequences for human well-being will be small. Looked at in the broader context of economic development, climate change will barely slow our progress in the effort to raise living standards.
Boisvert goes on to note that issues such as high temperatures, droughts, and the displacement of populations from flooded areas are all issues that are best addressed by technological innovation — of the sort that people are already pursuing.
We Need Capital and Innovation More than Ever
In the case of droughts, for example, experience has shown that the best tools in addressing them lie in fostering wealth. Specifically, Boisvert uses the example of recent droughts in the Middle East and how they have “affected Israel much differently from the rest of the middle east – because Israel has more capital and more human ingenuity.”
Wealthier, more market-based societies are better able to deal with these problems and more. After all, it’s not a coincidence that 20th-century Communist regimes were among the most environmentally disastrous regimes the world has known. Wealth brings both the desire for — and the means to achieve — a more pristine environment.
In his essay titled “Enlightenment Environmentalism,” Pinker takes exception to the “radicalism and fatalism” of the climate change movement which has fostered some especially dangerous ideologies. Specifically, he notes the brand of environmentalism favored by activists like arch-anti-capitalist Naomi Klein who, “in her 2014 bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, [contends] we should not treat the threat of climate change as a challenge to prevent climate change. Rather, we should treat it as an opportunity to abolish free markets, restructure the global economy, and remake our political system.”
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The problem with Klein’s position, Pinker suggests, is that wealthier societies are the sorts of societies that are more likely to deal prudently with environmental problems. He concludes:
Humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. As the world gets richer and more tech-savvy, it dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies, sparing land and species. As people get richer and better educated, they care more about the environment, figure out ways to protect it, and are better able to pay the costs.
Pinker spends much of his article illustrating with empirical data the fact that, yes, richer societies are cleaner, more ecologically-minded societies. The parts of the word most characterized by market-based systems are the parts of the world most mindful of environmental maintenance and cleanup. We can already see in the world poverty data that sanitation, hunger, and extreme poverty have all been lessened in recent decades, at the same time that global markets have expanded.
While neither Pinker nor Boisvert are advocates of unhampered markets, both also recognize that the innovation and wealth-producing power of markets are what produce the technologies that that are so essential to overcoming environmental dangers and problems. Boisvert concludes that if humanity continues to develop the technologies it is already pursuing:
We will grow more food, harness more water, cool ourselves more vigorously, move to new lands and build—and-rebuild—new cities. We will exploit technological breakthroughs, but mostly we will improve familiar technologies and deploy them more widely. We will do all this not because of global warming but because of more pressing challenges like population growth and the demand for higher living standards. The means by which we will overcome specific problems posed by climate change look less like the pristine “sustainable development” envisioned by greens and more like the ordinary development that has always sustained us. [emphasis added.]
These last two sentences are especially important. It is not new, special, world-remaking regulations or global regimes that will keep humanity thriving in a world affected by global warming. It is “ordinary development” — driven by an everyday desire for higher quality of life — that will create the technologies essential to dealing with environmental problems.
This means, contrary to the global-warming radicals, it is not necessary to smash capitalism, adopt primitivist lifestyles, or revolutionize human society in the image of the central planner. In truth, people already want all the things that would make life both tolerable and enjoyable in a post-warming world. The necessary incentives are already in place. People already want technologies that will increase energy efficiency, cleaner air, and beaches without oil slicks. What many environmentalists refuse to admit, however, is that markets are the driving force behind the technologies that will deliver these solutions.
So let us go back to our earlier questions we addressed at the beginning of this article. What is the cost of implementing a global climate plan that would stifle markets and impose a more “sustainable” (i.e., lower) standard of living on global populations? If Pinker and Boisvert are right, we’re forced to conclude that the cost would be extremely high. If radical new environmental regulations are adopted, it is likely that market-based innovation and capital formation will be affected in a highly negative way. While anti-capitalists would cheer this, the likely result is a destruction of the very things we’ll need to address the environmental challenges that will face us.
This article was originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is an economist, and the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian.