Climate Change Wars

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Who’s right?

In the climate change controversies, the Left and the Right are at daggers drawn. The Left overwhelms with data, models, and prognostications warning of environmental disaster because atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased from an historic base level (by volume) of 0.03% to the present 0.04% — a huge percentage increase in raw CO2 levels, but a miniscule amount as a percentage of the entire atmosphere. The change, it is said, results from human activity, which must therefore be restricted.

The Right is skeptical of the data and how they’re gathered, often with much confirmation bias. It questions the models’ inputs and premises, and their ability to predict future conditions accurately. It accuses the Left of ignoring solar flare cycles, the possibility that earth is warming because we’re still coming out of the last Pleistocene ice age, and just plain old random fluctuations — the last three causes having nothing to do with human activity, which therefore needs no further restriction.

The Left overwhelms with data, models, and prognostications warning of environmental disaster.

But most of all, the dispute is about increasing government power. The Left’s solution to climate change is to put more controls on the economy. To the Right, this solution suggests an unnecessary power grab that would further restrict liberty and keep the world’s poor from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps — all for questionable results from reforms based on speculative premises.

The battle lines have been drawn along ideological lines, with science — both good and bad — playing second fiddle: most people just don’t have the knowledge or critical skills to evaluate the methodology and all the factors, conclusions, and opinions.

Fortunately, there is a third approach, one that relies on the Hayekian insight that markets are much better at analyzing all available data than any one individual, institution, or government (and I would include computers in that list) could possibly be. This is the approach taken by PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, a libertarian thinktank dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.

The Right is skeptical of the data and how they’re gathered, often with much confirmation bias.

It makes little difference whether the United States remained in or left the 2015 Paris Climate Accords: the agreed upon CO2 reduction levels were minimal, unreachable, and unenforceable. And despite the fact that carbon emissions from US power generation are at a 25-year low (thanks in part to fracking and cheap natural gas), “global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are steadily increasing and show no signs of slowing,” according to Shawn Regan, research fellow and executive editor of the PERC Reports.

Let’s admit it: solving the perceived problem of climate change on a global scale would be economically devastating, politically unattainable, and practically impossible. So PERC’s latest report focuses on adaptation, a concept heretofore deemed either taboo or irrelevant.

Al Gore dismissed adaptation as a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins.” Many others, says Regan, claimed that “focusing on adaptation would only distract from accepting costly carbon mitigation policies.”

Fortunately, there is a third approach, one that relies on the Hayekian insight that markets are much better at analyzing all available data than any one individual, institution, or government could possibly be.

But adaptation is the name of the game, and market forces are already at work — and have been for a long time, even though they’re seldom heralded by the media. As the latest PERC Reports (Vol. 36, Issue 1, Summer 2017) puts it:

Market prices send signals about local conditions that no central planner or scientific expert could possibly know. Property rights give resource owners the incentives necessary to adjust to changing conditions. If sea levels rise or crop yields decline, property owners have good reason to act — whether to invest in protections or innovations.

Some of the issues addressed by PERC’s scholars in the winter edition include how wheat production has, since the 1850s, adapted to a fluctuating climate (yes, the climate is not static); how wheat is increasingly being grown in harsher climates; how the global coffee sector is adapting to hotter conditions; how financial instruments are helping water traffic cope with the Mississippi’s erratic fluctuations; how free markets help cities adapt to climate change, through innovative designs in architecture and construction in flood-prone areas; and how urban growth — yes, urban growth — can do the same, through naturally occurring evolutionary redevelopments according to principles recognized by the late Jane Jacobs, doyenne and scourge of city planners. An analysis entitled “The Hole in the EPA’s Ozone Regulations” illustrates the way in which one-size-fits-all government edicts are prone to being gamed by those affected, and shows how an innovative contract in southern Arizona pays farmers to conserve water.

But PERC doesn’t limit itself to climate controversies. It is to environmental policy what the Cato Institute is to political and economic policy. All of PERC’s scholars are well-placed experts with impressive credentials.Two of its resident scholars are Liberty editor Randal O’Toole and water policy expert Terry L. Anderson, director of PERC and also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Anderson is the author of a groundbreaking book, Water Crisis: Ending the Policy Drought (1983). I particularly recall the influence that his ideas exerted on Sam Steiger, Republican Congressman, water company entrepreneur, and policy expert, the first libertarian mayor of my city, Prescott, Arizona and the first Libertarian Party candidate for governor. Steiger’s over-5% vote tally put Libertarians on the Arizona ballot, seemingly for good.

Adaptation is the name of the game, and market forces are already at work — and have been for a long time.

But I digress. Other PERC reports focus on how privately organized, ground-up, rights-based fishing groups have evolved in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Northern Australia, Belize, and other places, protecting near-shore fish and near-shore fishermen’s livelihoods. There are PERC articles assessing the runaway costs of the federal government’s wild horse program, and showing how human-wildlife conflicts were mitigated when elk were reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

One fascinating piece is an interview with and profile of Ryan Zinke, President Trump’s interior secretary, who arrived at his new job dressed in boots, jeans, and a cowboy hat, seated somewhat awkwardly on an English saddle atop a 17-year-old Irish sport horse ridden through the streets of Washington. Another is a contrast between the policies advocated by such environmental organizations as the Wilderness Society and the Audubon Society and the way in which they manage their own properties.

PERC’s analyses focus on politically achievable and practical ends. The organization’s style is thinktank noncontroversial. The appeal to libertarians is clear.




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