A Note on Global Warming

by Don Boudreaux on December 13, 2005

in Environment, Regulation, Risk and Safety

I confess that I don’t keep up with the data on global warming, or even with the debate.  Even so, I still have something to say about the issue.

Let’s assume that global warming is happening and that it’s caused by modern human industry and commerce.  Is there a case to be made for the United States government to continue to avoid signing the Kyoto Protocol?  More generally, is there a case to be made to shrug our shoulders and say “best not to do anything through government about global warming”?

I think so.

One legitimate reason for refusing to endorse massive, worldwide government-led efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is that any such effort will inevitably be politicized.  Even if the possibility exists for such regulation to make the world a better place, this possibility is remote compared to the likelihood that grandstanding politicians, special-interest groups, arrogant environmentalists who are intolerant of commercial values, and well-meaning but misinformed voters will combine to generate policies that do more harm than good.

More fundamentally, the relevant question – as always – is ‘compared to what?’  The polar ice caps might well be melting, the earth’s temperature might well be rising, and human industry and commerce might well be the culprit.  But this ‘culprit’ is also humankind’s great savior.  It keeps us from the fates suffered by the vast majority of our ancestors: famine, plague, filth, drudgery, and ignorance.  If global warming is a consequence of capitalism, I agree that it’s likely one that should be registered as a cost (although not everyone agrees that global warming is undesirable).

But if the only way to prevent or slow global warming is through political action, it is neither absurd nor irresponsible to argue that the best course of action is to ignore the problem.


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