Ignoring the long-term and immediate benefits of low-cost energy in climate change advocacy has played a substantial role in why conservatives and libertarians have hesitated to accept the premise of climate change.
Jonathan Adler, a legal scholar I respect and with whom I share similar views, rightfully asked the question, “What does it take to convince libertarians and conservatives that climate change is a real problem?” This has become a bit of a talking point for some conservatives and libertarians. Other venues such as Reason.com have published opinions of a related nature.
What I consistently wonder about, upon admitting that climate change is occurring, is: what then? If I admit that climate change is real (and I am open to discussion, and often operate from the assumption that it is occurring), then what? In short, what does “a real problem” actually entail?
Accepting climate change as a problematic human-driven phenomenon connotes remedial policies. Most proposed policy solutions would cap or limit carbon dioxide, methane and other global warming contributors known as green house gases. (Water vapor as well?) Green house gases are closely associated with energy production, particularly CO2. As a result energy costs are priced into every aspect of our lives. It isn’t just our cars, it is also our power at home and the food we eat. Every building requires energy to build, create, plan, and operate. It literally is in nearly every good or service. There is no aspect of the economy untouched by energy prices. Furthermore alternative energy sources have yet to prove their effectiveness; a premature reliance on alternative energy would drive up the prices. In short, in order to cut down on greenhouse gases the costs of energy must go up relative to the imposed burden.
Measures to control the output of greenhouse gases – i.e. regulations, caps, and taxes- would likely impose prohibitive costs. Even marginal increases in price would have a negative impact on all households, especially to those on the bottom of the socioeconomic strata. Income mobility would also suffer, particularly since an overall increase in the cost of living is likely to impact other efforts to dedicate resources to education, job creation, savings, retirement or any other self-directed effort to ameliorate poverty.
Alex Epstein’s “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” argues that because of cheap energy, largely available from fossil fuels, humans are better able to adapt to climate changes. Epstein makes this point most poignantly with an analysis of weather related deaths, which have been in constant and continual decline as wealth and prosperity increases. This prosperity is intimately tied to the use of efficient cheap energy sources. Epstein has even broken down the relation between types of energy and climate related deaths, with fossil fuels significantly out performing other forms of energy. Others have noted a decline in deaths from tornadoes, hurricanes and other climate related events. Those in dire economic circumstances are the least able to absorb climate related incidents and more likely to result in the loss of human life. Impoverished regions suffer significantly compared to stable economies, which have only recently curbed deaths that have occurred for centuries. There appears to be a direct causal link between affordable energy and climate related deaths.
Further evidence has shown that world wide poverty is on a long term decline. This then begs the real question, if all of this good occurs in large part because of access to cheap efficient energy, why is it ignored? Particularly in the same breath as condemning the use of fossil fuels for their alleged participation in driving up global temperatures. Ignoring the benefits that accompany the burdens of CO2 emissions is the most egregious mistake made in climate change advocacy.
I, personally, have no strong policy plan outside of letting the free market reign (not stating that is the current condition). Consider how the free market already plays a role. CO2 is a bi-product of fossil fuels, however it does not behave like a typical externality. For the most part, CO2 output is negatively correlated with the efficiency of fossil fuel use. Since this is the case, as we move toward increasingly efficient sources of energy, we will naturally cut down on CO2 emissions. Gasoline, for example, puts out approximately 20 pounds of green house gases for each gallon spent according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Assuming this measure remains constant (which I doubt is the case) increased fuel efficiency will directly impact the amount of green house gases released into the atmosphere. (I realize CAFE standards may have some impact, but doubt this is the primary driver in better gas mileage.)
Competitive markets historically become more efficient which makes resources stretch further. More efficiency means less CO2 emissions. Market interventions, however, may unintentionally produce the opposite result, especially if they lock in current inefficiencies and technologies and eliminate competition. Additionally, there is already a significant amount of evidence suggesting that CO2 levels are already decreasing, in large part (though not entirely) due to more efficient energy use and developing technologies. This includes alternative energy sources (including nuclear). As they improve and become cheaper, viable and available greenhouse emissions will continue to decrease. Already emerging technologies may create a substantial difference in greenhouse gas output and will continue to do so.
On top of all of that, it appears the proposed policies to combat climate change would not significantly slow anticipated warming and are largely tied to alarmist declarations of catastrophe that may or may not materialize. A lot of predictions, such as increased intense hurricanes, tornadoes and large weather events (which just sound made up) have not measurably increased. The most serious ever-looming concern is flooding from rising sea levels. Even if the sea rises as a result of global warming (which it may or may not be doing), it is clear that the solution would be to develop economically in order to combat any potential harm that may arise. Potential long term climate problems are better solved through prosperity than scarcity.
Certainly there will be future impacts resulting from changing climate, however, no other single good has enabled people to mitigate any harm from the climate like fossil fuels and cheap energy. It has been a consistent force of positive change despite environmental impact.
Though I think the science is not completely settled, I have no problem admitting that climate change is real and there may be a man-made contribution. However, the policy implications of climate change appear to be exactly the opposite of those proposed by advocates. Thus, I am left to conclude that to restrict green house gases and associated energy sources would likely be an immoral response to an inflated crisis. It would not just drive up costs, but likely prevent the continued increase of global wealth and indirectly permit climate related deaths to go unhindered.
It then appears that climate change will be taken more seriously, by libertarians and conservatives, when reasonable policy is advocated with consideration of the tremendous benefits resulting from inexpensive, carbon-based energy.
James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Questions, complaints and hysterics can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1.by