Monday, September 24, 2007

A better approach to global warming?

It occurs that perhaps libertarians and free market conservatives have taken the wrong approach to global warming. It seems libertarians and conservatives have decided that opposition to government environmental intervention requires a belief that global warming is a myth.

The problem with this, of course, is that it requires people who are essentially focused on economics and classical liberal political thought to debate on issues of natural science. This is turf that most libertarians are ill-suited to fight on. It may be that there is legitimate debate within the scientific community as to whether global warming is real; however, this debate is one best left to the professionals whose job it is to debate it. The fact is that, to the extent libertarians wish to engage "Progressives" (many of whom, by the way, are no better educated on the topic than the average libertarian) on issues of whether global warming is real, that debate can only result in a battle of statistics. This battle of statistics is not one that libertarians can win, if only because "Progressives" have more scientists to cite, and, frankly, have more invested in the debate. In fact, arguing with a Progressive about the existence of global warming is similar to arguing with a member of the religious right about whether the Bible prohibits homosexuality - whether you're right or not, they just know more statistics about the topic than you. This is especially true when you consider that statistics can often be used to prove or disprove just about anything (my all-time favorite example being the correlation between the rate of crime in Central Park and ice cream cone sales in Central Park).

Now, this is not to say that libertarians should completely abandon the global warming debate - quite the opposite, in fact. The fact is that while scientists have (and even deserve) more respect on things like climate models, global temperatures, etc., they aren't particularly well-trained in the disciplines of economics, policy, and law (similarly, your average fundamentalist preacher deserves more respect on issues of what the Bible says or doesn't say, but is completely out of his element when discussing the civil law and economics) . These disciplines, of course, are areas that libertarians know quite well, but others do not (see the now-infamous Civic Literacy Test for proof; I got a 58 out of 60, by the way). Indeed, rather than get bogged down in debating the science of global warming, libertarians can use the global warming debate as an opportunity to advance understanding of how and why free markets work. Specifically, libertarians would be best served to be officially agnostic on the issue of global warming, while explaining why free markets are better suited to solve the problem - if it is real - than big government and international treaties. Perhaps we could even demonstrate how, to the extent global warming is real, it is the result of (or at least exacerbated by) excessive government interventionism.

For instance, most of the world's most polluted cities, according to a recent report by an environmental group, are in states that until very recently (if at all) had very little respect for private property rights. We might also try to explain how stricter environmental controls in technologically advanced nations will only push manufacturing even further to nations with not only no environmental controls, but also far less pollution-reducing technology. We might also explain how minimum wage laws and labor unions exacerbate the problem by further pushing manufacturing jobs to countries with less ability to control carbon emissions. Better still, we should demonstrate how private industry will be far more likely to come up with solutions to environmental problems than will the government and how government's "occupying the field" in this respect actually discourages innovative solutions. Importantly, when government makes environmental policy, it does so in ways that must have a negative effect on the rest of their economy; but when private industry is allowed to create ecological innovation, the effect on the rest of the economy is entirely positive - more, higher paying jobs, and ultimately, production of eco-friendly energy that is cheaper than our current energy supply. Finally, if global warming is real, then consumers will have a high demand for eco-friendly products (see, e.g., the huge demand for hybrid cars); high demand for a product is the best incentive for private entrepreneurs to search for ways of creating that product.

Indeed, one could only imagine how far along the world would be on a technological solution if so many government-funded scientists weren't being paid to conduct additional studies to reinforce the belief in global warming, but were instead funded by private industry seeking to find ways of profiting on ecologically friendly technology.