More On the Full, Reality-Based Science of Global-Warming Regulation

by Don Boudreaux on September 7, 2006

in Environment, Politics, Property Rights, Regulation

Reason just launched a new on-line feature called Reason Roundtable.  I’m honored to have an essay in the inaugural issue, which deals with global warming.  In this essay I make a more extensive case (than I do here) that the best reality-based government policy might well be one that ignores global warming.

The other two essays in this edition — one by Shikha Dalmia and the other by Julian Morrris — are very much worth reading (even if you find my essay to be simply hot air).

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ben September 7, 2006 at 7:32 pm

Good article Don.

About the most persuasive argument for global warming policy is the precautionary principle – the idea that policy should be developed assuming the worst case, however unlikely, because the consequences of worst case warming are dire.

However, consistency demands that the precautionary principle be applied to policy itself. It is not difficult to imagine governments doing serious damage. It is hard to imagine they won't.

The precautionary principle argument therefore fails.

xmath September 7, 2006 at 10:47 pm

Even if the precautionary principle were morally true, it would fail as applied to this issue because the Kyoto-style advocates cannot prove let alone credibly claim that the policies they propose would do anything significant to alleviate the effect they predict.

Bruce Hall September 8, 2006 at 1:34 pm

Although your essay was a strong defense of the free markets approach to problem-solving, there seem to be a couple of issues not really covered:

1. if global warming is a reality, is it really a bad phenomenon or will it have a mixed impact on both people and other life forms (better conditions in some areas; worse in others)?

2. if global warming is a reality and will have a substantially negative impact on people/other life forms, what is the best way to address the situation without ignoring it?

Sometimes, market forces simply do not react well to situations that are detrimental to living conditions until it becomes almost unbearable. The first time I drove through southern California in 1968, I was appalled at the condition of the air. My wife and I could barely tolerate the stinging eyes and coughing resulting from the fumes. It certainly would have been simpler to ignore the situation and market forces would have prevented automobile manufacturers from adding thousands of dollars worth of emission and engine controls to address the problem. But I suspect that no one in southern California (and many other parts of the country) would like to return to the "good old smog-filled days."

Sometimes, it seems that government must set a policy and then let the free market decide how to live within that policy… otherwise there is a fine line between ignoring the situation and an ignorant approach to issues that are larger than market forces. I agree, however, that the government should not be in the business of saying what the specific solutions should be; i.e., what specific technology must be implemented. It is enough to say that electric power generating plants and motor vehicles should meet certain standards by a certain date and then stand back to see how the market responds. Like anything else, the smartest, simplest, most effective solution will win.

beedubs September 8, 2006 at 2:01 pm

Could you comment on a tax on gas (or coal or any other carbon-based fuel) as a means of reducing global warming risks?
1) revenue neutral, the tax would be offset by income tax reductions
2) there are significant but unquantifiable negative externalities (of the global warming variety) inherent in the consumption of carbon-based fuel (at least given current technology)
3) income taxes discourage work and investment
4) gas/carbon taxes reduce consumption of those fuels and therefore reduce negative externalities inherent in their use

Your thoughts?

ben September 8, 2006 at 4:50 pm

Bruce Hall

" if global warming is a reality and will have a substantially negative impact on people/other life forms, what is the best way to address the situation without ignoring it?"

You're ruling out by assumption an important response to global warming, which is do nothing. Why presume a response to global warming is required if it is far cheaper to deal with the consequences of warming than to prevent it?

Bruce Hall September 8, 2006 at 11:39 pm


You are presuming that it is far cheaper to deal with the consequences of global issue than to address the root causes.

I agree that little has been done to seriously assess either the damage or the benefit of global warming. Some geographies may actually benefit from a warmer climate or more available water.

In the absence of such analysis… along with a decent amount of empirical evidence… perhaps the correct course is to do nothing… or it might be catastrophic. But, hey, we'll be dead before the consequences are really known and our grandchildren will have the benefit of new technologies that reduce the cost of living and make things better, so they can deal with that.

Or am I mixing in another discussion here?

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