As the coverage of the recently-concluded United Nations Climate Change Conference reminds us, there may be no more controversial issue today than climate change. On the one side are those for whom it is the great moral imperative of our time to do everything possible to stop the putative warming of our planet, failing which the human race itself is at risk. On the other are those for whom the idea is history’s greatest hoax, a tale woven by authoritarian charlatans who crave money and power to build an eco-fascist dystopia.
This piece is pointedly not about the science of climate change, for the excellent reason that I am no better placed to express such an opinion than I am to perform heart surgery or to design a suspension bridge. Like most of us, I have neither the time to review the relevant scientific literature nor the expertise to understand it even if I tried. Instead, this piece is about how to think about climate change for those of us who are unequipped to hold an informed, scientifically-grounded opinion. An inability to understand the underlying science does not preclude one from contributing to the debate over climate change in other ways.
First, the reason that climate change matters is that its potential consequences—flooding, drought, extreme weather, etc.—are a problem for human beings. Unlike nuclear war, an asteroid strike, and certain other potential threats to our planet, climate change poses no danger to life itself. Indeed, a warming planet should benefit many non-human species. And every inch of lost coastline is new habitat for marine animals. So unless you believe for some reason that the interests of polar bears are more urgent than those of jellyfish, the only reason to care about climate change is that you believe that it will harm human beings.
Second, the science of climate change is just that: science, not politics, not economics. It is an article of faith among leftists that action on climate change is urgent, while for most conservatives and libertarians the issue can be safely ignored. These are opinions not on climate science but on the role of government. Only scientists can answer the basic questions necessary to diagnose the problem: Is the planet’s climate changing? If so, why and what consequences might result and how likely are each of them? And what actions would help mitigate the negative effects?
Third, scientists operate by formulating hypotheses and then conducting experiments to test them. They analyse the resulting data and submit their conclusions to their peers for review before publication. This mechanism helps keep scientific research honest and grounded in best practices. Like any process, it is imperfect and has been known to fail. But the best evidence that it works is the world around us, in which planes fly through the air, diseases are cured and buildings stay up. People can be conned, but reality is an unforgiving judge. And so if there is indeed a 97% consensus in the literature that the climate is changing and that human activity is the cause, it is unthinkable that the entire thing could simply be a fraud. Of course, the claim that such a consensus exists may itself be incorrect, but the best conclusions of scientists on a given issue cannot responsibly be dismissed as fraudulent.
Fourth, while a genuine scientific consensus cannot be fraudulent, it can be wrong. Experts are only as good as the current state of knowledge, and new research reminds us that even if “everyone” knows something, “everyone” is sometimes wrong. A scientific consensus tells us that to the best of our knowledge, something is true. But the phrase “to the best of our knowledge” cannot simply be dismissed as though it were meaningless.
Fifth, any actions that would mitigate climate change would entail a cost that human beings would have to bear. The most likely prescription, a significant reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases caused by the consumption of fossil fuels, would be anything but cost-free. When it developed the technology to use fossil fuels, the human race gained access to abundant energy that, over the past century or so, has powered the greatest increase in wealth (and therefore the greatest reduction in poverty) in the history of our species. Until we develop another technology that is cheaper or otherwise better, curbing our use of fossil fuels would cripple our ability to create wealth and harm us all, particularly the poorest.
Sixth, once scientists have given us their best answers to the questions before them (recognizing that no such answer is ever definitive), the matter of what is to be done requires an economic analysis. This is not an argument that the economy is more important than the environment. It is an observation that, given that the point of combatting climate change is improving human quality of life and it can only be combatted at a cost, once we know whether there is a problem, its size and what can be done about it, then economic analysis—an examination of trade-offs—is the only way to sensibly determine the optimal course of action.
Seventh, the best economic analysis may determine that the proposed solution would be costlier than even the worst possible consequences. For example, avoiding a rise in the seas that would flood an area inhabited by 700 million people may require consigning several billion people to perpetual poverty by depriving them of access to the cheap energy granted by fossil fuels. It might make more sense to build seawalls or otherwise help those 700 million mitigate the negative effects of rising waters. Of course, a meaningful economic analysis would need to take into account myriad factors such as the rate of change (does the flooding occur over a decade or a century?), alternative energy sources (how viable are solar or nuclear power?) and innumerable other considerations. But it is possible that doing nothing may be the most sensible course of action.
Eighth, and most importantly, if the conclusion is that action should be taken, only a voluntary approach can hope to produce the desired result because state action is invariably governed not by science but by politics. This phenomenon has more illustrations than there are stars in the cosmos, but for our purposes let’s recall the Liberal Party’s Green Shift proposal during the 2008 federal election.
If climate change is real, manmade, and a serious threat, then the policy’s logic was irreproachable. Greenhouse gas emissions constitute a negative externality, since they warm the planet, the cost of which is mostly borne by people other than the polluter. The proposed solution was to tax carbon emissions at $10 per ton (eventually rising to $40), thereby transferring that cost back to the emitter. In economic terms, this is a way to internalize the externality.
The problem is that politics got in the way. For one, the Liberals’ platform did not even attempt to explain how the amount of the tax was calculated. Properly done, the amount of the tax would be a function of the degree to which emissions need to be reduced and the price sensitivity of polluters—in sum, a determination of what level of emissions are acceptable and how high the tax needs to be to get there. If the Liberals conducted any such analysis, their platform was silent on it. More likely, the figures seem to have been determined based on what the Liberals thought that Canadians would be willing to accept rather than scientific considerations.
Another problem was the perception that the policy would be, as the Conservative Party dubbed it, a “tax on everything.” The Liberals had clearly anticipated this line of attack and asserted that the Green Shift would be revenue neutral: The carbon levy would be accompanied by large cuts in personal and corporate taxes. As a result, Ottawa’s overall revenues would remain unchanged. But when it became clear that the policy was a tough sell, party leader Stephane Dion announced that certain groups whose activities are directly reliant on fossil fuels—such as farmers, truckers and fishermen—would benefit from a tax break to offset the higher cost of carbon. The policy would be tailored so as not to alienate interest groups that the Liberals wished to keep onside. In other words, politics would trump sound policy. However good it might have been in theory, the Green Shift was always doomed to fail in practice.
People who are ordered to behave in a certain way generally view it as an imposition to be worked around. Conversely, those who freely accept to do something will normally do it in good faith. If we need to revolutionize our ways, any top-down fix imposed by the state will produce the distorted incentives, unintended consequences and other problems associated with any government policy. A bottom-up, grassroots approach driven by a genuine, widespread desire to change individual behaviour is much more likely to succeed. And since long-term environmental concerns are an unaffordable luxury for those worried about short-term survival, that desire is more likely to arise in people made wealthy by free markets. If climate change does pose a serious problem, then liberty offers the best chance at both finding and implementing the necessary solution.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.