Climate Change

by Don Boudreaux on April 18, 2011

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Environment, Risk and Safety, Standard of Living

Here’s part of the conclusion of a recent, data-rich paper by Indur Goklany; this paper is Chapter 6 in Climate Coup (Patrick J. Michaels, ed., 2011):

Despite claims that global warming will reduce human well-being in developing countries, there is no evidence that this is actually happening.  Empirical trends show that by any objective climate-sensitive measure, human well-being has, in fact, improved remarkably over the last several decades.  Specifically, agricultural productivity has increased; the proportion of population suffering from chronic hunger has declined; the rate of extreme poverty has been more than halved; rates of death and disease from malaria, other vector-borne diseases, and extreme weather events have declined; and, consequently, life-expectancy has more than doubled since 1900.

And while economic growth and technological development fueled mainly by fossil fuels are responsible for some portion of the warming experienced this century, they are largely responsible for the above-noted improvements in human well-being in developing countries (and elsewhere).  The fact that these improvements occurred despite any global warming indicates that economic and technological development has been, overall, a benefit to developing countries [pp. 181-182].

Indur here nicely captures my own attitude toward the current hysteria about climate change.  I neither deny that climate change is occurring nor that its occurance is the result of human activity.  (I’m no natural scientist, so my ability to judge the science is inadequate.)

What I do deny is (1) the presumption that climate change necessarily has worsened or will worsen human well-being compared to what that well-being would have otherwise been, or will be, under different feasible policies, and (2) the presumed necessity for governments to ‘do something’ about climate change.  From the perspective of an economist, it is a non sequitur to conclude from the existence of made-made climate change that government must take steps to halt, or to diminish, those human activities that contribute to climate change.

Of course, the fact that fossil-fuel fueled improvements in humans’ ‘micro’ environments – the close-in environments that matter most to us, such as the air in our homes and workplaces, the cleanliness of our clothing, the absence of animal manure on our city streets, etc. – are very real and very large does not imply that steps ought not now be taken at the margin to reduce human activities that are thought to contribute to climate change.

But the case for taking such steps would be more plausible, believable, and acceptable were not so many of its advocates prone to write and speak as if the benefits of industrialization, such as those mentioned above by Indur, are unreal or overblown or, more precisely, as if these benefits are not connected with the very industrial and commercial processes that climate-change hawks wish to further rein in.  So much of the conversation by climate-change hawks takes place as if the demonstration of the existence of a cost is sufficient to prove that that cost must be reduced.

And, too, so much of that same conversation takes place as if the political authorities to be charged with reducing this cost will act both wisely and in the public interest.

Both stances are most unscientific.

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Notalawyer April 18, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Claims that global warming WILL reduce human well-being needn’t show human welfare CURRENTLY being decreased. Moreover, concurrent welfare benefits of petrol based growth don’t clinch the argument for or against. Like Mr. Boudreaux, I don’t deny climate change is occurring nor that human activities contribute to it. What would be needed is to weigh the cumulative benefits & detriments of petrol based growth vs alternative methods. This must take into account that alternatives will likely see lower growth overall because hydrocarbons are currently the most concentrated and usable form of energy relative to its cost of acquisition. This is extremely difficult because this retarded growth from denying ourselves a readily available energy source is difficult to measure & the purported detriments compound upon one other and cause the most harm in the future. What is undeniable is that commerce & technology has had incredible benefits to billions of people despite its dependence on oil thus far.

What I would offer for serious consideration however is that many natural scientists consider this to be a serious and existential problem. Its entirely possible that global warming could open up more space for human habitation, crop growth etc. But most scientists believe it will have large detrimental effects. Personally I feel like sea level rise and Gulf Stream shut down could cause the largest challenges. The current estimated sea level rise by 2100 is between 1-3 ft and weighing recent observations puts the upper bound around 6 feet. A study in the April, 2007 issue of Environment and Urbanization reports that 634 million people live in coastal areas within 30 feet (9.1 m) of sea level. This sea level rise could seriously imperil many major cities & billions of people by 2100. Moreover, the gulf stream which keeps Europe warmer than it would otherwise could face drastically colder temperatures making much of it less habitable.

Natural scientists’ concern for this issue gives me concern for this issue & I believe concerted effort to be more efficient & conservative in our energy use will only aid in making energy & prosperity available for more people & help secure it into the future.

geoih April 18, 2011 at 3:34 pm

All the doom and gloom forecasts of the climate warmers have become white noise. The only way anything substantive will be done to curb fossil fuel use is for the price to go up. We are seeing those prices go up now and there is outrage in the interior, though it’s ignored by the administration (mostly because they are glad it is happening). Whether they are glad or not, the interior believes that the high prices are mostly due to taxes and government restriction on supply through restrictions on drilling.

If there is an achilles heal to Obama’s re-election, it is the price of gasoline. All of the “green” attitude in the world will not make the opportunity costs of filling your gas tank any less painful. If people are thinking about that when they walk into the voting booth, then he is finished.

vidyohs April 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm

To deny climate change is to be ignorant of history.

To claim life, animal or plant, contributes in any significant way to the forces that drive climate change is pure speculation at this point,

All the solid evidence as to the causes of climate change point to forces beyond the cause or control of humans, such as sunspots and volcanic eruptions.

Apolloswabbie April 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I agree and would take this point one step further. You don’t have to be a science expert to know that proving the cause of global warming would be tough enough, even if those trying to do so had very precise data sets, which I don’t think they do.

I ask – how could a scientist PROVE the cause of climate change?

The only method that I know of is by building a model with forward/backard integrity, in other words, a model that has predictive power as well as backword looking integrity.

Because this model does not exist, there can be no proof of man’s role in climate change. There can be evidence, conjecture, testing, evaluation, speculation, and opinions rendered (as there have been), but that’s it. And I might remind those who have forgotten that the opinions of an infinite number of scientists does not equate to science. The entering argument of the scientific method is that we should not trust the opinions of scientists!

Treibs April 23, 2011 at 11:12 am

This argument demonstrates an ignorance of the scientific method. Science can not “prove” anything. It can only offer testable hypotheses, and attempt to refute them.

Svante Arrhenius offered the hypothesis in 1897 that increasing CO2 absorbed IR radiation, and therefore that increased concentrations could cause warming. This hypothesis has survived numerous tests. But it can not be “proved”.

Certainly there are many other complicating factors, but the hypothesis has not been refuted, which is the best science can do.

The sunspot and volcanic hypotheses have not survived testing.

I fail to see what any of this has to do with understanding the effects of a warming climate on human well-being.

John Dewey April 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm

” concerted effort to be more efficient & conservative in our energy use will only aid in making energy & prosperity available for more people”

It’s not clear what you mean by “concerted effort”. Are you using this definition of the word?

concerted: Jointly arranged, planned, or carried out; coordinated.

Isn’t it the price of energy as determined in a free market – not some “jointly arranged or planned effort” – which holds the greatest promise for motivating humans to develop sufficient energy for consumption by humans?

Isn’t it the price of energy as determined in a free market which will motivate humans to find ways to consume less energy?

Please help me understand what “concerted effort” you envision which would be more effective than the workings of the free market at “making energy and prosperity available for more people”.

Gil April 19, 2011 at 12:47 am

I believe a lot of Greens are quietly smug when fuel prices go up causing people to rethink their motoring habits.

Chuclehead April 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Years ago predictions were that by 2010 sea levels would rise and displace 50 million people. It hasn’t happened. There are more tons of glacier growth than melting, unlike predictions. Satellite data shows the earth cooling over the last few decades. Land based systems subject to heat island effect and reduction of remote weather stations skews surface based data.
Climate change is real. the climate has always been changing, and always will. Man caused climate change is another story. North American CO2 emissions represent 1 % of world totals. Most warming comes from solar emissions, whose variance can not be controlled. Shutting down oil/ gas use is like blowing out the candle while your house is on fire, because it is getting too warm.
You could call it a tragedy of the commons problem, only if you first determine it is a problem. It could be made up by rent seeking/ green political groups. Most scientists may be subject to moral hazard due to funding and grants. Unintended consequences abound in all directions. Personally I want to wait until they can predict tomorrows weather before I buy into predicting changes 100 years from now. Global warming is still a religion requiring a leap of faith. It snowed last night in Chicago.

Bill April 18, 2011 at 4:27 pm

“There are no solutions — there are only tradeoffs” ~ Thomas Sowell

Robert April 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm

We must move to an all-GREEN energy machine. If getting there bankrupts every citizen, so be it. The ‘people’ will be poorer but will have the global warming alarmist ‘scientists’ (snicker, snicker) on their side…..well, at least until the government ‘grant money’ runs dry and they dream up yet another ‘sky is falling’ cause.

muirgeo April 18, 2011 at 5:46 pm

We have two experts in different fields of study;

One claims the evidence suggest that anthropogenic climate change will likely cause severe societal disruption and tragedy could possibly be averted or diminished by acting soon.

One claims he knows the best way to arrange society is in a leaderless anarcho-capitalist state.

The second expert suggest not to completely trust the first…. because of issues of “uncertainty”.

It just seems a little peculiar to me.

jhodapp April 18, 2011 at 11:28 pm

What’s so peculiar about a healthy dose of skepticism? Where is your inner skeptic? You seem to be too quick to trust “leadership.”

muirgeo April 19, 2011 at 3:16 am

Because the second “experts/skeptics” so glaringly missed the call on the recent economic collapse that was an event that occurred with in their own area of expertise. The ideological blinders they wear shielded them from recognizing the housing debt bubble… likewise such blinders are opaque to inconvenient externalities such as climate change. Climate change if it exist is first and foremost a threat to their beliefs even more ominous than the threats it poses to civilization. If it exists it nullifies simplistic free market ideologies… as if they haven’t already been proven false.

Not ALL of them missed the call…. mostly just the free-marketeers enjoying the bubble on its way up.

Michael Hudson April 2006

JohnK April 19, 2011 at 7:58 am

One person’s inability to predict the future proves that someone else can?

Holy shit you’re stupid.

Jim April 19, 2011 at 12:13 pm

What does one even say to that? First, I don’t hear economists like Don and Russ claiming that macro economics is a perfect predictor of economic systems. Nobody would claim that. You’re implying that those who are not of the free-market persuasion got their predications correct; that they predicted a housing bubble and the bad chain reaction of governments spending beyond their means? I thought I heard a lot of those same people saying governments should spend more. But that has had some disastrous effects (i.e. Portugal, Greece, Ireland, US, etc). So your comment makes very little sense.

Tell me, if you don’t believe in free markets at all, what do you believe in? Would you like to live under a Communist regime? How about a pure dictatorship? Do you honestly believe these types of governments do a better job at allocating scarce resources, even in a fair way, than free-markets (note the use of free, not crony markets that are in bed with politicians)? I really want to know what you think here.

Sandre April 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Muirgeo is a religious nut who believes in prophecies of the Holy ones, especially His Holiness Al Gore. He is a true believer in these “omniscient” super being’s ability to tell the future before it happens. I heard that he is also a part-time psychic.

JohnK April 19, 2011 at 9:11 pm

It is a natural human trait to worship authority.
That authority could be a god, a god named God, government, government appointed “experts”, etc.
This allows people to accept things without thinking about them.
No need to evaluate or think critically. They’re authority.

Those of us who do not blindly accept things without critical evaluation are a distinct and unpopular minority.

We are a threat not only to authority, but to those who worship authority.

The individual is the enemy of the collective.

brotio April 19, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I heard that he is also a part-time psychic.

And a full-time physic.

Jim April 20, 2011 at 8:54 am

I never seem to hear back from him when I ask for what he truly believes. He’d rather just bash open-minded people who think critically instead of engaging in honest and open debate.

brotio April 20, 2011 at 10:59 pm


Did you ask Yasafi what he believes? Or, did you ask what he thinks?

The second question is unanswerable.

Paula April 18, 2011 at 8:44 pm

You are so right on the money with my perspective of global warming in this post..The inventor of global warming even backtracked on this as early as 1992…Roger Revelle, wrote, Global Warming, Look Before You Leap, “The scientific base for a greenhouse warming is too uncertain to justify drastic action at this time….”

lesterlock gandusen April 19, 2011 at 12:14 am

The impact of climate change on (some country) Your choice: Where is it? Give a clear paragraph locating it. Don’t make it too big e.g. a whole continent.
Quick Detox Diet

Mark Hubbard April 19, 2011 at 6:01 am

Best scientific article I’ve seen for some while on the political hysteria surrounding climate change:


“The debate about global warming has reached ridiculous proportions and is full of micro-thin half-truths and misunderstandings. I am a scientist who was on the carbon gravy train, understands the evidence, was once an alarmist, but am now a skeptic. Watching this issue unfold has been amusing but, lately, worrying. This issue is tearing society apart, making fools out of our politicians.

Let’s set a few things straight. The whole idea that carbon dioxide is the main cause of the recent global warming is based on a guess that was proved false by empirical evidence during the 1990s. But the gravy train was too big …

N. Joseph Potts April 19, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Advocacy of government action to affect climate change is the Keynesianism of science.

Just as most of Keynesianism is perniciously false, so also are virtually all of the tenets of Warmism.

Observer_Guy1 April 19, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Whenever I need to read an informative, relevant, and thoughtful article on climate change, I know Don will not disappoint. You have the uncanny ability to cut through the noise and non-sense and present the truth. Thanks!

Chelsea Hunder May 10, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Republican factory owners killed your family and friends in the catastrophic blizzards, floods, tornadoes, massive wildfires and other climate change that has been wiping out the bible-belt. This is the Climate Change that their factories created. This is the Climate Change that the Republicans lie about not existing. This is the Climate Change that they program their constituents to deny exists. This is the Climate Change that killed people, destroyed homes, further destroyed the economy that the Republican factories emissions caused so they could make profits by killing those people. Republicans deny Climate Change at all costs in order to keep their factories from having to pay to stop it. The Climate Change that is destroying massive sections of our country can no longer be hidden or denied. The issue of Climate Change is TOTALLY ONLY about Republican factories which cause Climate Change getting charged to put filters on their factories. In the face of a staggering volume of FACTS proving that Climate Change is here, Republicans train their sheep-like followers to deny it always and to never read any of the facts.

Dan May 10, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Have another snort of cocaine.

Dan May 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm

There was an early freeze……. Aaaaaaahhhh ….. Republican factories caused it…. Women and children dying in the streets….. What idiocy!!

Dan May 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm

The only reason for advocacy of some change in the climate around the globe is the billions to be made by those heavily invested in the ‘windmills’ and ‘solar panels’ like Al Gore and Jeffery Immelt.

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