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Wise Words on Global Warming

The Foundation for Economic Education’s Sheldon Richman has some wise words about the global-warming debate.  Here’s the crux:

More than a few reputable scientists see potential problems in the climate
change that is occurring. Thus the issue needs to be evaluated on its merits. I
know of no a priori reason to rule out the possibility that human activity is
producing enough greenhouse gases to warm the atmosphere to an extent that will
have bad consequences. That doesn’t mean it’s happening, just that it’s not

For every factoid about ice sheets or sea levels or sun spots
I can pull from the skeptics’ literature, someone else can produce a
counter-factoid. How is a nonscientist to decide which is accurate?

is not to say the skeptics don’t raise apparently compelling points. They do,
and the believers should address them. But that still leaves the problem of how
a layman is to sort the wheat from the chaff.

For advocates of individual
liberty it is tempting to believe the skeptics are right because the other side
is associated with statist solutions to climate change. Most solutions call for
government control over the burning of fossil fuels. No advocate of free markets
can be comfortable with a position that entails substantial taxes and subsidies
to achieve a political objective — reduction of carbon emissions — especially
when the solutions promise no more than negligible reductions in temperature.
(Temperature, not emissions per se, is supposed to be the believers’ cause for

But picking sides in a scientific debate on the basis of
proposed remedies is the wrong way to go about things. A believer in global
warming could get the science right but the remedy wrong. That government
shouldn’t ban smoking doesn’t mean smoking isn’t bad for you. There is nothing
incoherent about favoring free markets and thinking that global warming
is a problem.

Sheldon’s absolutely correct.

Relatedly, my GMU colleague, law professor Bruce Johnsen, sent this response to the George Mason University Faculty Senate.  Bruce’s note is self-explanatory — and also wise:

Dear Faculty Senate,

I emphatically decline to sign the Climate Change petition and would like to be on record for so declining.  I object to the Faculty Senate presuming to speak for individual faculty members on matters such as this that are both debatable by any reasonable person standard and highly political.  They are best left to individuals’ actions as citizens independent of their connection to GMU.  This kind of group-think is most offensive and in my view the Faculty Senate has no authority to engage in it.

Although climate scientists are competent to tell us whether the earth is, for the time being, warming, or whether it is warming outside some historically normal parameters, they are not competent to forecast the economic consequences of such warming or to suggest what should be done in response.  When they try to do so they are not acting as scientists but as political advocates.  Even if it is true that global warming will generate "large-scale disruptions," the consensus among economists — whose expertise is at evaluating trade-offs —  is that taking the steps necessary to avoid such disruptions will lead to substantially larger disruptions.

D. Bruce Johnsen
GMU School of Law