Winning the war on warming?

Posted: Mar 25, 2007 12:01 AM
Winning the war on warming?

It's not cool to express skepticism about global warming. This doesn't worry me much; I gave up "cool" a long time ago. Still, the uncool must be ever so much more circumspect.

Last year, while wondering about the science and the evidence as well as worrying about the ideologies implied, I hazarded that, if people really believed in the scenarios of Al Gore and others, they'd be abandoning beachfront for hill property, right and left.

Now, Gregg Easterbrook has devoted an essay in The Atlantic to just that: who wins and who loses, economically, in a warming climate. It's the cover story in the April issue, and it's a fun read. Easterbrook explores what a warmer world might look like. His major conclusion: Russia, Greenland, Canada, and Canada's native populations (recently given quite a bit of autonomy in previously unwanted territory) will reap the biggest gains, as interesting times and warming climes bring a spring to the once-frosty North.

Whether it makes real sense about the weather . . . well, I don't know. Most of it is speculation. And is presented as such. One thing I come away with is this: Climate science is less exact than the "science" on the nightly news weather program.

So, it's like economics. Prediction isn't the name of the game, exactly. Explanation and warning are. Unfortunately, we plan by predictions. Sort of.

A number of researchers and pundits still fuss about the evidence for global warming, but, whatever else is said, melting glaciers and ice caps seem to be pretty good evidence for a warming trend. It doesn't really take an expertise in climatology to recognize that. Laying blame (for, really, the blame game is where this is all at, eh? otherwise, none of this would be "cool") is harder. What percentage is caused by human industry and automobiles, what percentage by livestock flatulence, and what by . . . the sun's radiation itself?

Scientists will likely argue about this for a long time.

Meanwhile, before buying a hilltop in Alaska (where warming might make moguls) or investing in a greenhouse-gas offset tree farm in the tropics (to plant, as Easterbrook suggests, the most oxygen-rejuvenating trees), we might want to think through the rationales for government action that are becoming popular.

Easterbrook makes an interesting point:

The New York Times recently groused that George W. Bush's fiscal 2007 budget includes only $4.2 billion for research that might cut greenhouse-gas emissions. This is the wrong concern: Progress would be faster if the federal government spent nothing at all on greenhouse-gas-reduction research — but enacted regulations that gave the private sector a significant profit motive to find solutions that work in actual use, as opposed to on paper in government studies.

This points to the great danger of having the issue of global warming being advocated mainly by the left, for those on the left seem congenitally incapable of thinking practically. The further one leans left, the more one leans on government, and the more one does that, the more one becomes satisfied with "symbolic action" rather than actual success. It's the besetting sin of the Left, you might say (let's not talk about the sins of the Right, right now; please!), and, if warming is real, substantial, and apt to change the world, it had better become an across-the-political-spectrum issue pretty quick. If not, we'll be stuck with the government wasting even more of our money and accomplishing nothing, or, worse yet, making matters worse.

For my part, I wonder about Easterbrook's own assumption. Yes, he knows that government research in technology often over-produces the under-performing. But, well, don't businesses have incentives to economize now? Oh, right: this is about what economists call "externalities":

The market has caused the greenhouse-gas problem, and the market is the best hope of solving it. Offering market incentives for the development of greenhouse-gas controls . . . is the most promising path to avoiding the harm that could befall the dispossessed of developing nation as the global climate changes.

I'm somewhat dubious. For one thing, blaming greenhouse gases on markets is kind of odd. There are no property rights to the atmosphere, not really. Markets depend on property rights. We have just as much reason to call it a government failure, no?

Besides, pollution is part of nature, and is something human beings do with or without markets.

Consider: one of the biggest problems for today's burgeoning space industry is all the space junk floating around the planet, left by astronauts in the early stage of our Space Age. And these missions were nearly all government-funded and government-directed! I've read a number of articles on the problems of space junk, but none call it a market failure, naturally. But, also, I don't recall the articles calling this problem a government failure, either. People are awfully reticent about blaming things on government, but not about blaming things on "the market."

It's just human. The blaming.

And the pollution.

We do what we do. We make small changes in our behavior. And, barring a "methane burp" to destroy us all, we will likely adapt to a warmer world, with varying degrees of . . . wisdom.

Still, in this context of a warming climate, with a possible rise in sea levels (I'd bet inches, not yards), does it make sense to rebuild New Orleans back to its full size?

Many current follies seem awfully strange in the light of this new scenario. And if we can't stop current idiocies, like the federal flood insurance for beach mansions (which as John Stossel has noted helps rich folk most), what hope is there to change old practices that are not so patently idiotic?

You know, the practices that heat our homes, feed our stomachs, and allow us to move about on the planet we can't help but call home.