The political economy of global warming

by Russ Roberts on February 7, 2007

in Environment, Politics

The din to do something about global warming appears to be deafening. Article after article in the media. The UN report. An Oscar nomination and maybe a Nobel Prize for Al Gore. A deafening din. A groundswell of concern. Unrelenting pressure to do something to save the earth.

But I don’t think much is going to happen in the policy arena, other than a few symbolic gestures. Here’s why.

The average American doesn’t really mind global warming. Remember those mild temperatures last month? It was in the 60s here in the DC area. People loved it. They certainly like those days better than yesterday when the temperature was in the single digits. People like cocaine, too. Most of us avoid it, though because we’re worried about the short term consequences. But the short term consequences of global warming are tiny. Most of the serious consequences are at least 90 years away and even 90 years from now, a rational person is probably pretty optimistic that we’ll cope with a sea level that’s 23 inches higher. A rational person is also pretty skeptical about the ability of scientists to forecast sea level in 90 years. So there’s no pressing demand by the average person to push politicians to pursue policies that lower our income today in return for something a century or more from now.

It’s one thing to convince people that the earth is getting warmer. It’s another thing to convince people that human actions are the cause of global warming. But it’s a much harder thing still to convince people that the results of global warming will be something other than a more pleasant winter in Minnesota and a less pleasant summer in Arizona. You’ve got to convince people that we’re making the earth less hospitable for human and other life forms. We all know that the earth goes through big climate swings. So how likely is it that we’re actually going to destroy the earth? On top of all that, you’ve got to convince people we can actually do something about the problem. As Robert Samuelson points out, there’s not that much we can do.

This short-run basic human pleasure most Americans get from warmer weather helps people feel good about being skeptical about the data and the science. How seriously can you take the scientific consensus when there’s a debate about whether to use 90% or 99% as the likelihood that we’re changing the earth’s climate? That’s not science. That’s politics. How seriously can you take the scientific consensus when there are serious scientists suggesting the whole thing is a hoax. Jeff Jacoby lists a few here. And there are others. These folks aren’t saying the estimates are off by 10%. They’re saying the whole thing is a hoax. How seriously can you take the scientific consensus when you know that a lot of the experts are on the government and foundation funding gravy train and their livelihood depends on remaining on the right side?

But the biggest reason nothing is going to happen is that Al Gore Oscar nomination. Imagine ten years from now that the United States starts getting more protectionist. We start limiting imports and refusing to honor trade agreements. In response, George W. Bush does a brilliant documentary on the virtues of free trade. I don’t care how brilliant and accurate and persuasive the documentary turns out. At least 40% of the American people (and maybe it will be a lot more than 40%) will decide that because it comes from George Bush, the whole thing must be garbage with a hidden political agenda. Well about 40% of the American people (and maybe a lot more than 40%) think that Al Gore has a political agenda and can’t be trusted.

Having Al Gore as the most recognized advocate for action against global warming reduces the political likelihood of action. It politicizes something that should be pure science and reminds people that the solutions to global warming are going to come via the political process rather than from the experts.

The final reason we’re not going to do anything about global warming is because the Chinese  aren’t going to do anything about global warming. If the Chinese don’t do anything, our incentive is very small. We will have to take a big hit in standard of living to make up for the surge in the Chinese pollution that’s coming. And I don’t think the Chinese are going to do anything to reduce their march toward modernity.

A final thought: the experts on global warming bear little cost for making overly pessimistic predictions about the world in 2100.  So they have an incentive to make overly pessimistic predictions.

True, their reputations will be harmed. But right now they are all in the same boat. You don’t look foolish predicting that Florida is going to disappear if almost everyone else with glowing credentials makes the same argument. So I’m a little skeptical of their pessimism given that the costs of pessimism is low and benefits in the form of being on the good side of the funding angels is high. But they could be right. Maybe the earth is headed toward a fiery end. But if I’m right about the politics, then we’ll get to find out if the experts are right to be pessimistic. We’ll find out, not because we’ll all be alive in 2100, though many of us could be, but because we’re going to get a lot more data in the next decade or two to see if the current pessimism is justified. So we’ll talk again in 2020 and see whether the scientific consensus is as dire or direr than it is now.

That din we’re hearing now is either going to keep getting louder or it’s going to fade away. But because we’re not likely to do anything serious, we’re going to get a lot more data that will either enhance or destroy the current so-called consensus.


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