Friday, July 16, 2004

Global Warming - Some Clarifications

My previous post might leave doubts in some minds as to what exactly I believe to be the case with respect to global warming. My own personal inclination is to believe that the phenomenon is real, and not something to be waved away on ideological grounds, as so many libertarians seem inclined to do. We all need to take the science seriously, not just the advocates but also the skeptics, which means acknowledging the existence of information that doesn't gibe with our preferred worldviews. If, as I suspect to be the case, global warming is as important a phenomenon as many think it to be, we then must also come to terms with dealing with what would be the single biggest negative externality known yet to mankind, and that just might mean contemplating measures which any self-respecting libertarian would reflexively recoil from.
That said, I also think that those who are already convinced beyond doubt that global warming is real and likely to have a major impact must also seriously wrestle with two notions they'll find discomfiting:

  • That global warming is likely to bring not only drawbacks but also benefits. Some parts of the Earth will almost certainly be better off for a rise in global temperatures, and it simply dishonest to pretend that this won't be the case. We need to get a clear understanding of who the primary beneficiaries are likely to be, how big their gains might be, and then somehow weigh that against the losses of others.
  • That action against global warming is going to be cost free, or so close to it that detailed cost/benefit analyses are completely unnecessary. This is a notion that can be ruled out straightaway, as even the more modest measures proposed to fight global warming will have costs going into the trillions of dollars, trillions that might have gone instead to compensating those who are likely to lose out as temperatures rise. Also, as much as I admire the spirit behind the "Who could possibly put a price on ecological diversity?" argument, it is simply ridiculous to expect hundreds of millions of people to willingly forgo so much of their prosperity for the sake of a mere romantic picture of man at peace with a gloriously diverse nature. The likely losses will have to be put forward in hard numbers that ordinary voters can understand, and unless they can be shown to outweigh the gains to be forgone, one must expect them to balk at taking up the burden.

In short, when I take into account all the evidence we have so far of which I am aware, I lean to believing that the scientific case made by campaigners against global warming is much closer to the truth than that made by those who deny its reality, while on the other hand I find their utter disregard for the possible upsides and opportunity costs either naively onesided or plain disingenuous. Neither side seems willing to put forward all the evidence, good and bad, and leave it to the public to weigh it all in the balance.