Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Cooling Down Global Warming

The anthropogenic global warming (AGW) idea is the current trend. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and politicians all over the world at the forefront of the crusade, the message of saving the world from disaster is being lauded ever more. Based on “scientific evidence,” politicians are urging direct action to combat carbon dioxide emissions which they believe to be the main cause. Considerable action on the part of private non-governmental groups is also underway, with organizations such as Greenpeace going as far as to violate private property in a “peaceful” attempt to raise awareness.1 The general public’s stance doesn’t seem to be crystal clear, but there is no doubt that the idea of AGW is now widespread and that people are very lenient toward accepting it.

On the very other side, there are the skeptics who have offered their own opposite views, sometimes even under conditions of oppression.2 Skeptics’ principle of refusing to take for granted anything that is deemed to be “standard truth” or “a consensus” has generated doubts over the validity of the theory and its practical implications. As a result, skeptics have mounted a stronghold against the AGW alarmists, refuting both the basic idea as well as the measures “needed” to be taken.

Governments, however, are moving quickly to enact legislation in line with the goals of cutting back CO2 emissions. The cap-and-trade act endorsed by President Obama in the Congress as well as the highlighted Copenhagen Climate Conference are just two examples of governmental intent on taking concrete action. We should expect significant changes in the coming years, changes that may have profound effects on our lives. In all this, there are three very important questions to be asked.

Is Global Warming Really Happening?

The case of people making competent, affirmative statements about the existence of AGW isn’t nearly as scary as people saying that there is a consensus about the acknowledgement of its existence. If there’s anything that you can establish after sniffing for information that concerns the matter, it’s the fact that there are two main polarized camps, and that there’s absolutely no consensus. Both the scientific community and non-academic individuals have differences over the theory in part or in whole. In 2008, for example, 31,478 U.S. scientists (around 10,000 of which have PhDs) signed a petition rejecting the theory altogether.3

But what is global warming in the first place? It’s the idea that natural greenhouse gases (such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, etc.) accumulate in the atmosphere, thereby trapping the heat from leaving earth. So according to environmentalists, humans are intensifying the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and therefore disrupting the natural carbon cycle. They are doing this by burning fossil fuels and deforestation. Unless this stops, the earth will continue heating up, causing icebergs to melt and ocean levels to increase. This in turn will cause more floods and more weather distortions, the end result being a climate catastrophe.

AGW environmentalists claim to have definitive scientific evidence for this. One data example they use is the ice core data, first gathered 1985 in Vostok. According to this information, it was assumed that carbon dioxide levels determine the temperature. Later, the same method was used, only to discover that “temperature changes precededCO2 changes by an average of 800 years.4 The temperature was dictating the natural carbon cycle, not the other way around.

Satellite measurements of temperature are another source of evidence. These measurements are deemed to be probably the most trusted data, but they only go back so far as 1979. They have shown no warming in the southern hemisphere, and since 2001, the temperatures in the northern hemisphere have fallen.5

Other controversial evidence put forward by the environmentalists is the hockey stick theory. American climatologist Michael E. Mann reconstructed a pattern of warming, showing the earth to be relatively warm up to 1900, and then have the temperatures increase sharply. Because this formed a hockey stick-like figure, it was later named the “hockey stick” theory.6 The idea behind it was that industrial advances of the 18thand 19th century dependent on the burning of fossil fuels intensified CO2 emission severely, thereby causing global warming. The reconstruction, however, soon plunged into controversy for different reasons. The main criticism was that Mann had left out two important meteorological periods: the so-called Medieval Warm Period (AD 800 to 1400) and the Little Ice Age (AD 1600 to 1850).7

Nothing was more devastating to the AGW credibility, however, than the recent climate scandal – the Climategate. On November, 2009, a hacker broke into the systems of Climatic Research Unit and released thousands of e-mails and documents that evidenced “conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organized resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.”8 After the scandal, polls in U.S. indicated a drop in the belief in AGW among the public.9

But even if the world is warming, and a global catastrophe is to come – are humans really responsible for it? Or is this all a natural disaster, like earthquakes or volcanoes, for which we don’t have any accountability and can only hope for the best? A consensus regarding this question doesn’t exist either. Mathematician and astronomer, Khabibullo Abdusamatov, said thatunusually high level of solar radiation and a lengthy … growth in its intensity” are one of the causes.10 Professor of Civil and Petroleum Engineering, George V. Chilingar, cited “(1) solar radiation ..., (2) outgassing as a major supplier of gases to the World Ocean and the atmosphere, and, possibly, (3) microbial activities ...” as the possible natural causes.11

There is no doubt that the world is warmer now than it was hundred years ago. But these temperature fluctuations don’t say much about a future AGW with catastrophic consequences. Some economists have even claimed that the world is better off warmer.12 In the 1970s there was a similar climate-change panic concerning globalcooling. The alarm didn’t last long, however, and archaic computer models were discredited as scientific foundations for any empirical evidence.

Do Governments Really Have the Solution?

For those who share the skeptics’ side, whether the world recognizes plainly that AGW is no serious threat is of no main importance. What is more concerning is the increased role of government in the form of “tackling” climate change. The skeptic sees the additional regulations and taxes – disguised as moral and responsible action on the part of politicians – as the very classic expansion of the state. In this, the skeptic asks: Does the government really have the solution? The skeptic is concerned about another “war on climate change,” just like the “war on terror,” simply because of the horrible experiences with them. Apparently all that these statist witch-hunts do is undermine civil liberties and violate private property. It’s no rocket science to realize that when these two fundamental principles of preserving humanity are breached, the reduction of social welfare is customary. While government compulsion has a historic record of producing failure, many scientists have said that even if the proposed schemes are to be implemented “successfully,” the impact that humans can have in mitigating AGW is microscopic.13 Failure to kill the monster aside, let’s see some government actions that lie on the table.

Probably the most famous proposal is cap-and-trade. The idea behind it is for government to set a limit (a cap) on the overall level of carbon that can be emitted. After that, they start selling permits (or credits) to companies and organizations which emit carbon. Permits will be priced “accordingly” with the level of carbon that they allow. Companies can then trade these permits in the market, with more intensive carbon-emitting ones buying from others that pollute less. Because this has been labeled as a “market idea,” many economists have jumped on the bandwagon to support it. Politicians are also very much in favor, since it gives them a way to implement their goals without having to increase taxes – their number one nausea. After a brief analysis, however, one can see that this is nothing but a disguised trick to make people think that they’re not paying for compulsory carbon reduction, and that this is convenient for everyone. Setting a limit on carbon emission is a direct control of the market, and selling permits to pollute is simply a tax. Government attempts to create scarcity out of thin air can’t work, especially if the effect whose product they’re prohibiting is widely demanded. We’ve seen this movie with the prohibition of drugs, and cap-and-trade will only produce similar effects. With the supply of permits fixed, and the ever increasing need for intensive carbon-emitting means of energy, the price of these permits will quickly skyrocket. This will make the proposal even more costly than a straightforward flat tax or otherwise. However, the reason so many people endorse it is not its efficiency, but its political correctness.

Another example is the so-called “cash for clunkers” government program in the U.S., and in some countries in Europe. The idea behind it is that old, junky cars with low miles-per-gallon polluting the environment should be replaced with more efficient, eco cars whose CO2 emissions are smaller. The program offered people up to $4,500 (or €2,500 in Europe) if they turned over these cars, as a form of helping them to acquire new, better ones that are friendlier to the environment. Now this sounds all nice, but for those familiar with Frederic Bastiat’s broken window fallacy and the unseen costs of government spending know that something is fundamentally wrong with these kinds of programs. What is seen here is that people who couldn’t previously afford cars and were driving old ones are now able to get new ones. What is also seen here is that the new cars, which are undoubtedly more efficient, are not damaging the environment as much as the old cars. However, what is not seen is all the tax-payer money which was extorted from productive and rational owners and invested into channels which the government bureaucrats deemed as more important. Imagine all the products and services (including eco cars) that could have come into the market with the use of those funds, but couldn’t because they were allocated in channels that somebody other than the buyers and sellers dictated so. It is another way of telling the people that they don’t know where to spend the money right, and that they should it hand over to these all-knowing gods so they can re-distribute it better. The economic “reasoning” goes, “people will buy more cars and that’s good for business and the overall economy.” Wouldn’t it then make sense for the government to take all our money and subsidize computers, tables, furniture, food or anything else that they think is inferior (such as the old, junky cars) and give us all superior goods instead? Glazier’s business would also make profits if we were to break the glasses of every shop so that he can repair them, with our own money. Of course this is absurd, but the $2 billion program makes total sense.

Another idea is having the government spend on urban planning, more I should add. According to the proponents of this idea, “inefficient land-usedevelopment practices have increased infrastructure costs as well as the amount of energy needed for transportation, community services, and buildings.”14 Now they believe the government should step in to regulate places in which you can build, what you can build, and how you can build it – as if it’s not doing it enough. They want the very same government that has problems running public transportation or airport security to do more public planning.

All these government actions contain ethical problems ahead of economic problems in the first place. The issues of freedom of choice and the ever-present risk of missing accountability for its failures make all these actions socialist in nature. Geoengineering, for example, raises moral issues for those who believe bureaucrats shouldn’t play god at people’s expense.

On the economic level, these actions will hurt industries highly dependent on fossil fuels, the prime source of world energy. In attempts to curb carbon emission, they will increase costs and decrease efficiency for many companies. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have the potential to roll back the 20th century industrial and technological advances that increased people’s standard of living if they are to be pushed through aggressively and consistently. Finally, the fallacious idea of the “omnipotence of government” will unfold at the expense of a century-long accumulation of capital.

Is Government-Business Partnership Fooling Us, Again?

The skeptic doesn’t only think of the government as a child whose arrogance way exceeds its capacity to “contribute” to society. The skeptic knows that many politicians out there posing as Messiahs sent to save humans from their inability to manage themselves are nothing other than unscrupulous fraudsters serving special interests. The very nature of the politician occupation is that of a deceiver, and with little money to be made from their redundant and pathetic jobs, they often use the legitimacy of the state to get it from under the table. The case of AGW is no different; it too provides an excellent opportunity for some individuals and some companies to make profits at the expense of the poor tax-payer. As soon as the Byzantine rules are legally established and hefty sums are allocated for subsidies, the now common game of rent-seeking in corporatist America will begin. I can already picture some energy companies begging the Congress for financial support so that they can switch from carbon-emitting machines – which were so useful yesterday but have become a poison today – into means of energy that are friendly to the environment. These will probably be the companies that aren’t doing well and want an easy fix because they can afford to transform their current relatively small capital into using other sources such as solar energy. In the same way companies specialized with the construction of nuclear energy plants, for example, will be favored over other type of energy companies. So will be the companies that produce or sell parts for wind energy. Elsewhere, EU already allocated a hefty €7 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.15 Sweden planned subsidies for the new eco cars at a potential cost of 1.4 billion kronor (roughly $190 million). 16 In all these deals that are financed by the public there is a winner, one appointed by the bureaucrats and legitimized by their court scientists. Did we see this image before? Yes, with CEOs of GM, Chrysler and Ford who staged a puppet show in Congress for a cool $17.4 billion under Bush, and then another $21.6 billion under Obama. It’s interesting to note that the cash for clunkers program, apparently done mainly for the sake of the environment, came at a time when the Big Three ran into trouble.

It’s not hard to imagine the politicians sitting there in big expensive tables and discussing their heroic plans to make the world green again. But make no mistake; they’ll also make sure their wallets are greener too! When you see the climate-change action plans being discussed and you analyze them, what comes out the other way of the scanner is private deals to serve private individuals involved in them. It doesn’t have to do much with the environment; it’s about money and business.

I can’t talk about AGW, however, and not mention the leading superstar in the warmingbusiness – Al Gore. The man who told us the inconvenient “truth” is doing very well for himself by heavily investing in green energy companies. Of course nothing is wrong with this, until the Energy Department gets involved. Last year they announced a grant of $3.4 billion, of which $560 million went to utilities in which Gore’s company Silver Spring has contracts.17 The list of winners, however, doesn’t stop here. There are many to win from these changes, but only because a lot more others will lose.

The Libertarian Alternative

Now by here, the average reader will probably think of me with both anger and confusion. “How can trying to protect the environment be bad?” Well, apparently it can, and mainly because politicians out there are not in it for the environment. They’re in it for themselves first, and then if there’s something left you can have it. But “what other alternative is left then?” one may ask. I say the libertarian alternative.

The libertarian solution to environmental problems is grounded on respect for freedom of choice, private property rights and distrust of people who tell you they can manage your life better than you. Now, a lot of people are skeptical about the idea that the free market (which often reminds them of anarchy, which in turn reminds them of chaos and turmoil) has the capacity to protect the environment better than a centralized body of compulsion. But if you bear with me for a bit more and see through my points, I think you and I can be on the same page regarding the idea that we don’t need the government to play nanny in order for us to live in a cleaner world.

Just like any demand that exists out there in the market, the need for a cleaner environment is a demand too. Just as you want safety when you’re considering buying a vehicle, you may also want one which has a smaller carbon-emitting engine. Slowly, with the increasing awareness of pollution, we are sophisticating this demand. On the other end, businesses whose entire game-plan lies on serving us (the consumers) are also doing their part to come up with satisfactory solutions. The same relationship that exists between a consumer that needs food and buys it can also exist between people conscious of protecting the environment and businesses offering them solutions. Consider Toyota’s Prius eco car, for example. Did government compulsion mandate Toyota to build such a car? While political pressure was undoubtedly present, the key drive behind Toyota was the consumer. They simply capitalized on what they saw as a growing trend of people becoming environment-conscious. There was no regulation or directive; it was the demand that drove it towards completion. Do you think that if governments abolished their laws which mandate car companies to have the security belt installed we wouldn’t have them anymore? Obviously the law has nothing to do with it, the consumer has. Consumers profess their sovereignty by buying or abstaining from buying a certain product. It is this which guides businesses and their production. Any government interference will only distort this relationship. In this sense, if consumers are really worried about the environment, companies will have to adjust to their desires or go bust. Nothing is more merciless and rigorous than the free market, yet many want to trust people with fairness and calculations which they simply can’t do.

While the free market is the best platform for people to get what they need – including a cleaner environment – the role of private property rights is probably even more fundamental in providing people with security. Private property rights are the backbone of Austro-libertarianism because they form the core of a social system in which conflicts are minimized to their fullest. Even though these rights exist to some degree in the world, they are not practiced consistently and with the same regard as one Austro-libertarian would want to. In fact, Western countries that often accuse the rest of the world for human rights abuses violate these rights continuously to the detriment of their own citizens. On the other hand, if these rights were first properly defined and then properly respected, we would not have the kind of pollution we have today. Just as one violates your property rights by forcibly throwing a bag of garbage in your garden, factories that pollute villages with smog (and in the process distort the carbon cycle) are also doing the same thing. However, we find it very easy to understand how you can deal with the garbage thrower, but not so easy how to sue these “mass” polluters. Well, one reason for this is that these mass polluters are either owned or extensively controlled by the state, which makes it hard to sue them because winning the lawsuit would unveil the incompetence of statism in managing these companies. In addition, you can’t expect fairness and justice when the person you’re suing is also the one who makes the court rules and then hands you the final verdict. While it is true that most of these polluters are privately-owned companies, the state is again to blame because it doesn’t act in its self-professed capacity to defend property rights. When an individual commits a crime and gets away with it, our outrage is directed more towards the people responsible to pursue and punish the criminal than the criminal himself. This, however, is not the case when we deal with big companies that open factories in small villages and choke them with pollution. In this case we totally forget who the responsible agency for the protection of property rights is. Instead, we commit all the logical fallacies by blaming deregulation and capitalism. But you can’t expect the government to secure you these property rights when they violate the most important property right of all – the human body. It is imperative, therefore, for the government to stop violating them in order to be able to protect them. Companies continue their irresponsible behavior simply because they know that the government always fails to protect these rights and that at the end of the day they can always bribe. It would be na├»ve and childish to think we can educate people into being morally responsible, in this case the polluting companies. However, it would make more sense that we ask the government one last time to either protect these rights, or let us do it ourselves.

As you can see the libertarian alternative rests not only on sound economic factors, but first and foremost on ethical foundations that uphold the natural rights above everything else. Compulsory action, therefore, always acts against these principles and cannot produce utility on the net. Ludwig von Mises mirrored this fact when he acknowledged that the government is anything but the negation of liberty. In this we can elaborate: whenever the government uses people’s money to favor some individuals, it will always leave others worse off. Its inability to create additional capital (wealth) means that it can only move the existing one. Because by doing so it overrides the choices of individuals (who in a free market would make those decisions according to their specific needs and wants), the government doesn’t only fail to create something positive on the net but it also destroys that which already exists. And the bigger it is, the more access and power will immoral individuals have on it. It’s vital to understand that the existence of any form of government implies a trade-off between us and the government regarding the control of our lives. The more we leave to the state, the less we get to decide about ourselves. Controlling the environment is no different.

If tackling this anthropogenic global warming had no or little costs, it would be wise to stay wary and implement those proposed measures just in case. However, both when one realizes that the idea itself is not convincing – and that the proposed actions are immoral, uneconomic and perverted – one should know that if we are to care for humanity we must oppose them strongly. At the end of the day it’s suspicion that hands you a quality-check, whereas naivety leaves you blind and manipulated. I don’t know how global warming is working for you out there, but I’m just about freezing these days.


References

  1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1502037/I-feared-protest-by-Greenpeace-was-terror-attack-says-Prescotts-wife.html
  2. http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2009/06/26/politics/politicalhotsheet/entry5117890.shtml
  3. http://www.aim.org/briefing/31000-signatures-prove-no-consensus-about-global-warming/
  4. http://mises.org/story/2795
  5. Ibid.
  6. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3569604.stm
  7. Ibid.
  8. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100017393/climategate-the-final-nail-in-the-coffin-of-anthropogenic-global-warming/
  9. http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/permalink/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20091202005057&newsLang=en
  10. http://en.rian.ru/russia/20070115/59078992.html
  11. http://www.springerlink.com/content/t341350850360302/
  12. http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/denialmachine/index.html
  13. http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM2feb07.pdf
  14. http://www.fundersnetwork.org/files/Energy_and_Smart_Growth.pdf
  15. http://www.euractiv.com/en/climate-change/eu-mulls-7-subsidy-carbon-capture/article-183621
  16. http://www.thelocal.se/10196/20080301/
  17. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/6491195/Al-Gore-could-become-worlds-first-carbon-billionaire.html

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