I am rather agnostic toward “climate change” or “global warming” as it was called before the expression mutated for reasons that may be known only to our loving intelligentsia. I must say I was impressed by Tyler Cowen’s argument for (government) combatting climate change but, having now escaped his spell, the reasons for my agnosticism triumph again. The Economist’s story on the United Nations sixth report on climate change comforts me (“The IPCC Delivers its Starkest Warning about the World’s Climate,” August 9, 2021):
The oncoming dread registers yet more clearly than it did in the IPCC’s previous major assessment, AR5, published in 2013-14. The Earth has warmed over a tenth of a degree since then; it is now approximately 1.1ºC (2ºF) hotter than it was in the second half of the 19th century. Even if the countries of the world cut their greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically (they are not yet on a consistent downward trend of any sort) the IPCC finds that temperatures are very likely to be 1.5ºC higher than they were in the 19th century by 2050—if not before. That breaks the more ambitious of the goals for limiting climate change that the world signed up to in the Paris agreement of 2015.
The Wall Street Journal‘s title read “Some Climate Change Effects May Be Irreversible, U.N. Panel Says.” The lead paragraph adds the precision that it means “irreversible for centuries.”
One reason for my agnosticism is that ecological systems are extremely complex and naturally change over the centuries. Climate models are uncertain, by the very nature of modelization. With its chimneys and plastic bottles, Industrial Man still looks small compared to that. Scientists tell us that there was agriculture in Greenland before the Little Ice Age that started in the 14th century and lasted until the mid-19th. But I admit that I know close to nothing about the topic, by which I mean no more than what the typical environmentalist knows about economics and the logic of liberty.
Another reason is that we have heard about coming environmental catastrophes before. It is not the first time that politicized science cries wolf. The 1970s were full of predicted catastrophes. Time magazine of June 24, 1974 expressed the fear of global cooling:
However widely the weather varies from place to place and time to time, when meteorologists take an average of temperatures around the globe they find that the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing. Climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age.
I mention other manifestations of the environmental scares of those times in my Law & Liberty review of Paul Sabin’s The Bet—for example:
In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, [Stanford University biologist Paul] Ehrlich warned, à la Malthus, that the population explosion was hitting resource constraints. He predicted that within a decade, food and water scarcity would result in a billion or more people starving to death. Governments should work toward an optimal world population of 1.5 billion. He opposed immigration, since the United States was already above its 150 million population limit. He talked about the imminent “disintegration of an unstable world” and said, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
I suspect that a large number of the 234 experts who wrote the UN report have skin in the money game, because the scare is subsidized by governments, or in the ideological game. Moreover, the summary of their work has been revised by the governments that pay their salaries. The Economist notes:
A crucial part of this document is the “summary for policymakers”, which is, to some extent, also a summary by policymakers. During a five-day plenary process which ended on August 6th the governments that are part of the IPCC worked through a draft summary prepared by the scientific authors to produce a text on which all could agree. In the past this process has sometimes been vexed, with some governments unwilling to see things they found politically troubling expressed as bluntly as the scientists wished. On this occasion, though, the governments’ editing prerogatives were mainly used to ensure the inclusion of language various parties wanted in order subtly to bolster the negotiating positions they intend to take at COP26, the UN climate conference which will take place in Glasgow this November.
It seems that a large majority of climate alarmists harbor a view of politics that is properly totalitarian or, if not, extremely naïve. (I am sure, though, that many are well-intentioned.) A climate emergency certainly requires unconditional obedience to, and respect for, the climate czar, right? Propaganda will help. There is nothing wrong with flower children as long as they don’t try to dictate to others how to live.
Still another reason for my climate agnosticism is that adaptation to climate change may be much less costly for most people than a Quixotic battle to prevent it, especially so if you include the cost in terms of tyranny and lost prosperity for perhaps generations. (See “Henderson and Cochrane on Climate Policy,” Econlog, September 2, 2017.)
Even assuming that the climate situation is as desperate as governments and their subsidized researchers proclaim, it is not clear if anything could be done without seriously compromising our already fragile liberties. If there is an endangered species, it is individual liberty and thus prosperity. This reminds me of what Milton Friedman was already arguing in his Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 1962):
If, for example, existing government intervention is minor, we shall attach a smaller weight to the negative effects of additional government intervention. This is an important reason why many earlier liberals, like [U. of Chicago economist] Henry Simons, writing at a time when government was small by today’s standards, were willing to have government undertake activities that today’s liberals would not accept now that government is so overgrown.