Monday, December 21, 2009

climate change and tribalism

I've blogged about what I call flat-earth libertarianism before: the tendency for libertarians and conservatives, upon discovering some--what to call it--inconvenient truth that might imply some sort of government action. Jim Manzi, in a bloggingheads video with Grist's David Roberts, addresses the same tendency:
It's been a real not just kind of political error, which I think it has been, but an error in the attempt to find what is true ... There will be an argument made in the public sphere that scientific finding X implies political action or moral or ethical conclusion Y. The fact that by putting more carbon dioxide molecules into the atmosphere we drive temperature up implies we need a global regime of a carbon tax. Accepting the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology implies being an atheist. And people on the right routinely have gotten into the habit of saying I don't like conclusion Y, so I will attack the underlying scientific finding X, instead of the much more logical and sensible line of attack which is challenging whether X really implies Y.
Manzi goes on to suggest that part of this may be a reaction to a tendency for the other side of the debate to drape the full prestige of the physical sciences over areas of science that are quite a bit more cloudy. Measuring the mass of an electron is a different beast from teasing out the health effects of third-hand smoke. Climate science is incredibly difficult and has large uncertainties.

Another interesting discussion topic in that video was on the notion that the West owes the Global South something because rich western countries have been emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for longer than developing countries.
It is correct to say that the product of the sudden change in economic circumstances that happened first in northwestern Europe, then its offshoots, and is now spreading to the rest of the world, created many global effects. One of them was it pumped a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. Another was figuring out how power turbines work, and that you can use penicillin to cure diseases, and how democracy can work at scale and so on. And along with all the CO2 we put in the atmosphere, inevitably knowledge of that kind, as examples, leaked. And so to choose one of those external effects, called CO2, and say we're going to attempt to track this across borders over the last 200 years and add up in an accounting sense a debt owed by the people who emitted the CO2 to the people feeling its effects I think is entirely artificial and arbitrary.
I'd never actually thought of it this way before, but I think this is correct. But I still think it's reasonable to suggest that rich countries should help developing countries decarbonize their economies if only because helping developing countries build fresh, green infrastructure is about the only way the problem will get solved. On the other hand I think it's a relevant point out that, coincidentally or not, it is the poor, developing nations that will feel the worst brunt of climate change.

Another bloggingheads video just a week later featured David Roberts (again) with Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey, reporting from Copenhagen. They found energy utility regulations as an area where they could agree, giving the example of how cogeneration (selling the excess heat generated in coke plants, for example) is prohibited in most states.
Roberts: These monopolies have been regulated and their profits have been protected and they've been protected from competition for decades and as a result there has been no innovation.
Bailey: Electricity utilities are regulated monopolies, form the least innovative sector of the economy, period.
Roberts: I'll tell you where they innovate is in new ways of manipulating public utilities commissioners to give them their money. So right there you have, at dead center of the American energy economy, something that would give Adam Smith the heebie-jeebies.
Here we have dogs and cats, living together; environmentalists and libertarians, speaking constructively, in both bloggingheads videos. Bailey even offered to buy Roberts a beer next time he's in DC. Something that bothers me personally about discussions between, very roughly, liberals/environmentalists and conservatives/libertarians on climate matters is the extreme bad faith. The powers that be at Bloggingheads could much more easily have found a libertarian who thought that Climategate was the final nail in the coffin for the idea of anthropogenic global warming and that the whole thing is a conspiracy of liberals and the UN to return us to the Stone Age. And they could have found an environmentalist who thinks vocal dissenters should be put on trial for crimes against humanity and nature and there is no possibility for constructive dialogue.

There are mercenaries on all sides and they should be denounced by all sides, but a lot of the acrimony I see comes from otherwise reasonable, honest people. I think political tribalism is the big villain here. There is a gut level distrust between the environmental-minded and the economic liberty-minded, for whatever reasons. This gets smart people to say dumb things. Here is, for instance, my favorite blogger Will Wilkinson being schooled on the basic logic behind cap and trade by my favorite bugbear, Matt Yglesias. Putting aside momentarily public choice/sausage factory critiques, cap and trade is at its core a very libertarian policy (it's creating a market to solve a problem instead of imposing onerous regulations), and I suspect Wilkinson is at least partly so skeptical because all his Cato buddies are rigidly opposed. Likewise, I suspect most environmentalists would oppose efforts to deregulate electricity utilities simply because they deeply distrust free markets and their advocates.

This tribalism is unfortunate because, at least I opine, libertarians have really smart things to say
about potential climate policies. I'm sure it's because of my own tribal affiliation with libertarians and economistic pro-growth types that I chose to read Manzi's and Lomborg's arguments in the first place (I imagine rank-and-file environmentalists feel safe concluding Lomborg is a hack and Cool It is not worth their time). But the basic argument that expanding wealth (by economic liberalization of course) in poor countries will expand their ability to adapt to climate change is a powerful one. Libertarians also have an intuitive feeling that, whatever the damages of climate change, it is possible that there exists some political deal and suite of regulations so onerous and inflexible that it is worse than climate change itself. I myself doubt that any cap and trade scheme will be that bad, but I think it's a reasonable concern. I certainly think it's worrisome that green industrial champions will be effectively chosen by pet senators and barriers will be erected around them, bringing innovation (and our best hope for decarbonization) to slow creep. The bias from the other camp seems to me to be that we are at a global minimum of effective climate management and any imaginable climate legislation must represent an improvement. Stated in those terms, obviously no one would agree, but that's the impression I have.

There are valid criticisms for these libertarian arguments (I would call them insights). I just wish more of the debate would be about these concerns and less about accusing opponents of mass murder.


  1. "Putting aside momentarily public choice/sausage factory critiques, cap and trade is at its core a very libertarian policy (it's creating a market to solve a problem instead of imposing onerous regulations)"

    I've never understood that either... and they've enacted cap and trade systems for SO2 and NO2 emissions for acid rain, and they worked wonderfully. I'd have to see how many of the permits they gave away, though....

  2. To be honest I'm a bit skeptical that you can directly compare SO2 and NO2 emissions markets with CO2. The former markets were more limited in scope. CO2 permeates pretty much every nook and cranny of the economy.