Monday, October 30, 2006

Stern Report on global warming

Andrew Leonard in Salon has a brief gloss of the Sir Nicholas Stern "The Economics of Climate Change" report on global warming: The Cold War of global warming

Now, as I've probably said in the past sometime, I'm politically inclined to be dismissive of global warming. The image of failed socialist wackademic revolucionarios re-inventing themselves as environmental activists, seeking to shut down the means of production that they failed to win state ownership of, fits my mental template of the Left pretty snugly.

But, as voracious a devourer of popular science as I've always been, I must also admit that there seems to be more than a little something to global warming. I'm a big believer in the power of aggregate knowledge. If independent findings in many different scientific fields point to the same conclusion, then you've gotta take that seriously, the political coattail riders notwithstanding.

That said, I call pish-tosh on this:

Pollution, as seen through an environmental economics lens, is another example of market failure. If it costs less for a company to dump toxic waste in a river than to comply with government regulations, then the market is not providing the correct behavioral incentives. The Stern Review, by depicting climate change as market failure, is making a strong environmental economics case that governments need to rejigger markets to create different incentives.

But as has been discussed here before, there is another school of thought that holds that environmental degradation, climate change, species extinction, etc., are a consequence of market-based capitalism, rather than just strong hints that the engine powering the global economy needs a tuneup. In this perspective, global warming is the Day of Judgment for humanity's current system of self-organization and the threat of global devastation is rated as the most compelling possible rebuttal to a philosophy of unending economic growth. Seen this way, it is little wonder that conservatives fight so hard against even acknowledging that there is a problem. For them, a stance of skepticism about climate change is a holdover from the Cold War. If Lenin was alive today, he's be pushing a carbon tax. He must be stopped!

Mr. Leonard might have a skim through an old book called The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union, among many other documentations of runaway environmental destruction in totalitarian countries. It's glaringly apparent, to anyone who thinks about it for a moment, that pollution has been, is, and will be worse in industrialized totalitarian countries than in industrialized free countries. (And unlike Mr. Leonard, I see no need to put sneer quotes around the word "free". Freedom in the West is as much a fact as a blessing.) In a free society there are multitudinous voices pulling this way and that. Concerned citizens can successfully organize and right wrongs, including pollution.

By definition, in a totalitarian country, the citizenry is bound and gagged, and there is no effective brake on what the government can perpetrate on them. That's why, in the Soviet Union, the Aral Sea shriveled up, why prime farmland was ruined with addle-pated heavy industrial projects, and so on. This is also why, to an extent (since China is not a simple culture), even though smokestack scrubbing technology is decades old, and carbon emission reduction technology is also out of its infancy, the Chinese aren't bothering to use them very much. If you're willing to go along with starving to death an eight-digit number of your countrymen, or massacre your own young people live on international television, then you're not going to get overly anguished over effluvia in some fisheries.

And if you're a civilization-loathing intellectual, who can't quite mentally process the fact that it is the above-named tyrannies plus his sainted Third World who are ruining the environment the most and the fastest, then the factor of freedom is likely to escape your cogitations. When people are free to take polluters to court, and elect environment-friendly politicians, then market-based capitalism can indeed be the blessing its boosters claim.

That's part of why I, at least, persist in being skeptical about global warming. I don't trust the Wise Head approach to solving this problem. I still remember sitting in college symposia, years ago, listening to experts predict an overpopulation-induced "die-back", which was also supposed to occur some years ago. A market failure? Maybe so. But if a dictatorship of intellectuals is the answer, then I'll stick with the market. It's like G. K. Chesterton once said:

The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.

1 comment:

  1. Inspector:

    See for an appraisal of Sir N. Stern's pronouncements.

    She cites distinguished American meteorologist Professor Richard Lindzen's observation that the computer modelling performed at the Hadley Centre, one of Britain’s most vociferous proponents of man-made climate change, was seriously at odds with the actual warming that was taking place.

    I'm not sure what Swift would have had to say about economists, but the late Robert Heilbrunner probably put it best in saying that he and his fellow practitioners of "the grey science" are a lot better at explaining what happened than they are at predicting what will happen.


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