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Reducing CO2 Concentrations In the Atmosphere Is Not An End In Itself

At least partly disagreeing with this EconLog post by Kevin Corcoran – a post that expresses wise skepticism of top-down ‘solutions’ to social problems – regular EconLog commenter Thomas Hutcheson wrote:

Well, we have been waiting quite a while for a bottom up solution to increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

In response to Mr. Hutcheson’s remark – his remark being unintentional evidence in support of Corcoran’s point – I offered the following comment:

Mr. Hutcheson: The correct criterion is not how much CO2 there is in the atmosphere – or by how much the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been changed by top-down or by bottom-up responses. The correct criterion is how well human beings protect their lives and livelihoods given the fact that the production of much of what makes modern life possible involves as a by-product the emission of CO2.

If the best way to deal with CO2 emissions is to pay little or no attention to the emissions as such but, instead, to adjust to the consequences – say, by building higher sea walls, or by creating more reliable air-conditioning – then by hypothesis we should do the latter rather than the former.

Of course, no one can say in the abstract that the “if” that motivates the previous paragraph is in fact true. But no one can say in the abstract that it isn’t. Fact is, no one can say in the abstract what is the best way, or mix of ways, of dealing with CO2 emissions. But what we can say in the abstract – and say correctly – is that it is wrong to posit reductions of concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere as an ultimate end. If the cost of reducing CO2 emissions by X amount is $Y, then humanity ‘should’ spend $Y to reduce CO2 emissions by X amount if and only if:

(1) the value to us of having CO2 reduced by X amount is worth at least the value to us of what we would otherwise have enjoyed had we not spent $Y to achieve this reduction of CO2 emissions,


(2) the improvement in our lives that would be achieved by a reduction of CO2 emissions by X amount cannot be achieved in some alternative way at a cost of less than $Y.

Because of the enormous complexity of the modern world, real-world knowledge of these details is impossible to get. The best we can do is to make educated guesses governed by realism about political processes. When I look at the economic history of the past few centuries, I see that unprecedented and enormous improvements in human health, safety, and comfort – and in living standards generally – have been generated, and continue to be generated, by CO2-emitting industrial activities. There is clearly a benefit side to the cost side of CO2 emissions.

This benefit side is all-but-ignored by mainstream pundits, professors, and politicians. These people simply take for granted that our standard of living will continue to be high with government-engineered reductions in CO2 emissions, or that the benefit to us of government-engineered CO2 reductions will by hypothesis be worth the cost. The fact that so many people who today are hysterical about CO2 emissions do as you do in your comment here – namely, talk and write of reductions in CO2 emissions as if achieving such reductions is an end in itself – gives me no confidence that the loudest voices screaming about climate change are thinking with sufficient clarity and seriousness about the matter.

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