Cleaned by Capitalism XXIX

by Don Boudreaux on December 23, 2012

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Environment, Seen and Unseen, Standard of Living

The only notable downside of this spectacular invention is that it enables politicians, bureaucrats, and professional rent-seekers to work comfortably – and, hence, more days and longer hours – during Washington’s hot and humid summers.

Not only does this innovative device promote great comfort in our homes, workplaces, theaters, hospitals, etc., it saves lives - lots of lives.  Here’s a new report from the Washington Post (for which I thank the cool Mark Perry!).  A slice:

Very few U.S. homes had air conditioning before 1960; by 2004, that figure had climbed to 85 percent.

A team of researchers from Tulane University, Carnegie Mellon University, the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined patterns in heat-related deaths between 1900 and 2004. The group found that days on which temperatures rose above 90 degrees Fahrenheit accounted for about 600 premature deaths annually between 1960 and 2004, one-sixth as many as would have occurred under pre-1960 conditions.

“It’s all due to air conditioning,” said MIT environmental economics professor Michael Greenstone, one of the paper’s co-authors, adding that factors including increased electrification and health-care access did not affect heat-related mortality.

Not surprisingly, the report quotes someone who worries that, because air-conditioners are powered by fossil fuels, air-conditioning contributes to global warming.  Perhaps.  But what scientifically sound reason is there to dismiss the hypothesis that the unmistakable and life-saving beneficial cooling effects of the spread of air-conditioning overwhelm not only whatever contribution to global warming is made by air-conditioning, but also the additional global-warming made by other uses of fossil fuels?  None that I’m aware of.  Indeed, the casual empirical evidence that we do have – namely, longer and healthier and richer lives in modern society, and especially in the most free and capitalist societies – suggests that higher global temperatures are a bargain price to pay as part of the cost of modernity.

The point bears repeating: even if we ignore serious thinkers, such as Matt Ridley, who argue that the appropriately projected rise in global temperatures is in fact not very steep, it is not a scientifically established fact that the existence of even significant man- or industrial-made global warming worsens the condition of humanity.  The benefits (e.g., cooler, dryer indoor atmospheres from air-conditioning) of those human activities that promote global warming might well outweigh – indeed, outweigh significantly, even at the margin – whatever downsides might reasonably be expected from average global temperatures being made higher than they would be without the industrial and commercial activities that bestow upon us fortunate denizens of modernity life-extending technologies such as air-conditioning, antibiotics, and petrochemicals.

Especially given the inevitable imperfections and politicization of political decision-making, is it really the case that, at the margin, the benefits of X government-implemented procedure to combat global warming obviously enough outweigh the costs of X procedure?  Not to me.  Perhaps in principle some X is worthwhile at the margin; perhaps even in practice some X is worth attempting (again, even given that those who focus on “market failure” frequently ignore “political failure”).  My point here simply is that no scientifically established consensus exists that suggests that empowering government to further combat global warming is appropriate.  (Do take care to note that the science here is not chiefly physical or atmospheric; it’s largely economics and political science.)

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