Reality-Based Skepticism of Government Action to Fight Global Warming

by Don Boudreaux on August 13, 2006

in Environment, Politics, Regulation, Standard of Living

Members of the true reality-based community understand that
atmospheric science does not give the final answer about what, if anything,
governments should do to combat global warming.  Global temperatures might well be rising,
and human commerce and industry might well be the principal cause of this
warming. But there is a genuinely
scientific, reasonable case for at least being skeptical of entrusting
government with more power to combat it.

I make the case for this skepticism in my column in today’s
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
. Here are the
key paragraphs:

Capitalism produces so much food that we are never malnourished; it
produces ample clothing and sturdy homes to protect us from the
elements; it produces the soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and detergents
that we use every day to cleanse our bodies and living spaces of
bacteria and other dirt. And by continually substituting machines for
human labor, capitalism progressively makes our work less backbreaking
and less perilous.

These gains are significant and real. And they are continuing; no one knows where, or even if, they will stop.

Those of us who recognize these important benefits of capitalism
— those of us who understand that capitalism’s true greatness lies not
(as many critics insinuate) in producing oceans of pointless trinkets
and baubles but in making the lives of ordinary people richer and
fuller and longer — are reluctant to yield power to governments to
tackle global warming. We worry that this power will kill the goose
that’s laying this golden egg.

If you think that such a worry is exaggerated, recall the
language Al Gore used in his book "Earth in the Balance." The former
Vice President asserted that we are suffering an "environmental crisis"
that can be avoided only if we "drastically change our civilization and
our way of thinking."

"Drastically change our civilization." Hmmm. This sounds like a
call to significantly scale back markets, trade and industrial
activities in order to lessen humankind’s "footprint" on the Earth and
its environment. We can, no doubt, make our environmental footprint
smaller — but how great a benefit will this achievement be if it
returns us to the ages-old condition of high mortality and morbidity?

Undoubtedly, most people who seek government action to fight global
warming are "reasonable." They envision no drastic changes to our
civilization. And I concede that, in principle, cost-effective steps to
reduce global warming are possible. But I’m sure that it’s also true
that most of the "reasonable" people who demand action against global
warming are unaware of the critical role that capitalism plays in
improving the lives of ordinary men and women.

So given this fact along with the hysterical language used by
the likes of Al Gore — who, after all, is not on society’s fringes —
it’s a perfectly legitimate stance for truly reasonable people to
conclude that the best policy regarding global warming is to neglect it
— and let capitalism continue to make us healthier and wealthier.

(Arnold and Bryan over at EconLog have different but complementary takes on this issue.)

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