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Fishy Reasons; or Dam Collective Action

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I read the problem detailed in today’s Wall Street Journal [2] by the insightful Shikha Dalmia as evidence that Bryan Caplan [3] (following Geoff Brennan and Loren Lomasky [4]) is correct that collective political action inspires irrationality.

Here are relevant passages:

If their opposition to the Klamath hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest is any indication, the greens, it appears, are just as unwilling to sacrifice their pet causes as a Texas rancher is to sacrifice his pickup truck. If anything, the radicalization of the environmental movement is the bigger obstacle to addressing global warming than the allegedly gluttonous American way of life.

Once regarded as the symbol of national greatness, hydroelectric dams have now fallen into disrepute for many legitimate reasons. They are enormously expensive undertakings that would never have taken off but for hefty government subsidies. Worse, they typically involve changing the natural course of rivers, causing painful disruptions for towns and tribes.

But tearing down the Klamath dams, the last of which was completed in 1962, will do more harm than good at this stage. These dams provide cheap, renewable energy to 70,000 homes in Oregon and California. Replacing this energy with natural gas — the cleanest fossil-fuel source — would still pump 473,000 tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. This is roughly equal to the annual emissions of 102,000 cars.

Given this alternative, one would think that environmentalists would form a human shield around the dams to protect them. Instead, they have been fighting tooth and-nail to tear them down because the dams stand in the way of migrating salmon. Environmentalists don’t even let many states, including California, count hydro as renewable.
Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club’s deputy executive director and a longtime proponent of such a mandate, refuses to even acknowledge that there is any conflict in closing hydro dams while fighting global warming. All California needs to do to square these twin objectives, he maintains, is become more energy efficient while embracing alternative fuels. “We don’t need to accept a Faustian bargain with hydropower to cut emissions,” he says.

This is easier done in the fantasy world of greens than in the real world. If cost-effective technologies to boost energy efficiency actually existed, industry would adopt them automatically, global warming or not.

When the personal material cost, at the time of individual action, of expressing one’s fantasies is near-zero, very little exists to check the expression of those fantasies.  No matter how bizarre, inconsistent, or dangerous they might be if real-world attempts are made to act upon them, if a holder of such fantasies suffers no personal cost from advocating his or her crazy idea, lots of crazy ideas will be advocated.  This fact is especially true for those crazy ideas that, when held and advocated publicly by certain people, fill those certain people with a personal sense of distinction, heroism, or self-satisfaction.

And for further evidence of the hand-in-glove relationship between irrationality and politics, see today’s Washington Post column by Robert Samuelson [5], which begins:

It’s one of those delicious moments when Washington’s hypocrisy is on full and unembarrassed display. On the one hand, some of America’s leading politicians condemn high gasoline prices and contend that they stem from “gouging” by oil companies. On the other, many of the same politicians warn against global warming and implore us to curb our use of fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

Guess what: These crowd-pleasing proclamations are contradictory. Anyone fearful of global warming should cheer higher gasoline prices, because much higher prices represent precisely the sort of powerful incentive needed to push consumers toward more fuel-efficient vehicles and to persuade the auto industry to produce them in large numbers.

Of course, politicians at the moment are self-righteously condemning the rise in gasoline prices as the result of evil corporate greed and monopoly power.  More Samuelson:

It’s always fun to blame unpopular occurrences on corporate greed. Schumer’s notion, for example, is that the wave of giant oil mergers (among others: BP/Arco, Exxon/Mobil, Chevron/Texaco) has so concentrated U.S. refinery capacity that companies can constrict supply and create artificial scarcities by refusing to build new refineries. It’s a plausible-sounding theory whose major defect is the absence of supporting evidence.


Americans want to stop global warming. They want to cut oil imports. They want cheaper energy. Who will tell them that they can’t have it all? Not our “leaders.”

You show me endless examples of market failure; I’ll show you endless examples — and worse ones — of government failure.