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Looking for clarity on global warming

April 16, 2006

Tags The EnvironmentCalculation and Knowledge

Reading the thread on global warming below, I see a common mistake that pops up in a lot of arguments at the intersection of science and policy. With all due respect to the participants in the thread, they are largely talking past one another. This often happens in arguments over global warming, and I think there's a specific reason for it: there are really two separate questions in the global warming debate, and both sides tend to conflate the two, treating them as though they are the same issue with the same answer.

The thread below can really be thought of as two arguments:

Is human-caused global warming taking place?

If human-caused global warming is taking place, what, if anything, should be done about it?

Consider the two questions separately for a moment.

Is human-caused global warming taking place?

There are two obvious answers to this question: yes or no. It's largely an empirical question, needing scientific inquiry.

If human-caused global warming is taking place, what, if anything, should be done about it?

This question, which accepts that we are causing global warming, is more complex. There are theoretically many answers, but policymakers and people who believe global warming is a serious problem tend to reduce it as though the answer were a simple dichotomy of 1) the government takes action, or 2) we do nothing.

The problem is, it's easy to combine these two questions and their answers so that it seems as though a particular solution Y follows logically from a particular answer X, when this is really not the case at all. It distorts the global warming debate so that it seems as though there is only one question: Is human-caused global warming taking place? And the only answers are: No, and therefore we should do nothing, or Yes, and therefore the government needs to take action.

When the two essential questions in the global warming debate become tangled up in this way, those of us who oppose government action feel as though we are placed in an untenable position; either we deny global warming is happening or we acknowledge that it is and therefore accept the necessity of government action. I believe that when we allow the debate to be framed this way, we're missing what's really important, and we're missing the opportunity to make a point that desperately needs making in the public arena.

For this purposes of this post, I'm not going to take a position on whether or not humans are causing global warming. But there is a position I can take: if global warming is real, government action is not the answer. State action is too inefficient, too slow, too vulnerable to power-seeking and rent-seeking behavior, too apt to ignore the serious economic consequences of an action that has popular appeal. I am indebted to Dan D'Amico for also making the vital point, in the context of criminal justice, that government is unable to accommodate citizens' diverse preferences for the handling of large-scale societal problems. That is why libertarians must disentangle the two questions above and stay focused on the one that is most important to us, the question of state action. The presence and cause of global warming is a scientific question that will continue to be argued. That is as it should be; in science, complacency, the sense that we have all the answers, is always our enemy. But the idea that government is the logical, best, and only answer to the largest-scale problems in society is so appealing that it is often treated as though it needs no debate. It's this idea, not the idea that we're causing global warming, that is our enemy. Sitting here at my laptop, I freely admit I don't know the solution to global warming. But that does not mean that millions upon millions of freely acting humans in a dynamic market cannot or will not produce one. That is the central message, the one we need to keep in front of people. If we can keep our eye on that, whichever way the debate goes, we will be ready.

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