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Ron Bailey of Reason congratulates Al Gore

[updated] A great new post by libertarian Ron Bailey of Reason here:

Congratulations to Al Gore
But be wary of the man’s proposed solutions for global warming.
Ronald Bailey | October 12, 2007

1.  Here are some excerpts (emphasis added), followed by a copy of my comments over at Reason:

[Gore is] wrong to characterize global warming as a moral and spiritual problem. Man-made global warming is not some kind of environmental sin. It’s just another commons problem that has emerged as human civilization continues to develop. Most environmental problems arise in what are called open-access commons. That is, people pollute air and rivers, overfish lakes and oceans, cut down rainforests, and so forth because no one owns those natural resources and therefore no one has an interest in protecting them.

The point is clearest in the case of tropical forests and fisheries. No one owns the forests or fisheries, so anyone may exploit them. No one has an incentive to leave any trees or fish behind because, if they do, someone else will harvest them and get the benefits for themselves. In other words, those who immediately benefit from exploiting the resource do not bear the long-run costs of its ultimate destruction. This mismatch between benefits and costs is a recipe for disaster. Similarly, no one owns the global atmosphere, so there is no incentive for anyone to protect it from various pollutants, including greenhouse gases that tend to raise average global temperatures.

Generally, humanity has solved environmental problems caused by open-access situations by either privatizing the relevant commons or regulating it.  …

As a skeptic of government action, I had hoped that the scientific evidence would lead to the conclusion that global warming would not be much of a problem, so that humanity could avoid the messy and highly politicized process of deciding what to do about it. Although people of good will can still disagree about the scientific evidence for climate change, I now believe that Gore has got it basically right. The balance of the evidence shows that global warming could well be a significant problem over the course of this century.

Yale economist William Nordhaus … calculates that the optimal policy would impose a carbon tax of $34 per metric ton carbon in 2010, with the tax increases gradually reaching $42 per ton in 2015, $90 per ton in 2050, and $207 per ton of carbon in 2100. A $20 per metric ton carbon tax will raise coal prices by $10 per ton, which is about a 40 percent increase over the current price of $25 per ton. A $10 per ton carbon tax translates into a 4 cent per gallon increase in gasoline. A $300 per ton carbon tax would raise gasoline prices by $1.20 per gallon. Following this optimal trajectory would cost $2.2 trillion and reduce climate change damage by $5.2 trillion over the next century. …

Man-made global warming is an economic and technical problem of the sort that humanity has solved many times. For example, forests are expanding in rich countries because they have well-developed private property rights. Also in rich countries, regulations have helped once polluted rivers and lakes to become clean and have drastically cut air pollution. One of the keys to solving environmental problems is economic growth and wealth. …

In any case, global warming is not the result of environmental sin; it is the result of human progress creating another commons problem. … I have no doubt that man-made global warming is an economic and technical problem that an inventive humanity will solve over the course of the 21st century.

Still, congratulations are in order to Al Gore for being recognized by the Nobel committee for his persistence in trying to get humanity to pay attention to this new commons problem.

2.  Here is a digest of my comments to Ron:

Basically, a great post, but I’ve got a few small quibbles.

1.  You were right last year when you said that “In the end, the debate over global warming and its obverse, humanity’s energy future, is a moral issue.”

2.  I share your understanding of the economics and institutional problem and agree that a straightforward explanation of these is important for very many.

3.  However, you forget what evolutionary psychology, Ostrom and Yandle have explained to us so well about how our innate moral sense drives and underpins mankind’s success as a species by enhancing our ability to cooperate and to overcome commons issues.
Ostrom: http://conservationcommons.org/media/document/docu-wyycyz.pdf
Yandle: http://www.fee.org/publications/the-freeman/article.asp?aid=4064

Our long history of developed rules and institutions (informal and formal now overlapping) are based on our moral sense and the effectiveness of these rules depends critically on our moral investment in accepting their legitimacy – witness our views on murder, theft, lying and “not playing by the rules” – and in voluntarily complying with them.

Our moral sense reinforces our judgments about when rules/institutions are not working and the need to develop new ones in response to changing circumstances and new problems.  When we see a problem that we think requires change, it is unavoidable that we respond to the status quo, the behavior of people within it and the need for change with a moral sense. 

This is simply a part of our evolutionary endowment.  (Of course, other parts of our endowment accentuate our suspicions of smooth talkers and help us catch free riders and looters and to guard against threats from outsiders.)

4.  Accordingly, while it’s unclear how deliberate Gore’s talk of “a moral and spiritual challenge” and “lifting the global consciousness” is or whether this is a productive approach for some people, I think it is fairly clear that, in order to build consensus for a solution to the climate commons problem (and other difficult commons problems) and to ensure that any agreed solutions are actually implemented, we will need to bring our moral senses to bear.

In other words, it is RIGHT to worry about climate change, but no meaningful/effective “solution” can be reached or implemented unless it is FAIR and the parties involved have sufficient TRUST (backed by information) in each other.

5.  You have understated the AGW problem, especially in light of the inertia both in our energy systems and in the climate, the long duration of CO2 and other GHGS, and the rapidity with which the climate is already changing – faster than even this year’s IPCC reports: http://www.carbonequity.info/docs/arctic.html

6.  It is surprising that in referring to Nordhaus you have not indicated the ways in which it seems clear that Nordhaus has understated the costs and risks of climate change and the utility of acting sooner rather than later, as noted by Weitzman, Sterner & Persson, Quiggin and others, or that by “revenue recycling” as noted by McKitrick we can substantially reduce the costs of carbon abatement policies.

7.  You fail to note that while there are real costs to our economies to build climate change institutions, once established in principle any resulting carbon pricing reflects real costs and is not a “cost” to the economy.

8.  It is a puzzle that you did not note that the most powerful way to call forth the investment and behavior changes that would help us to “find a cheap, low-carbon source of energy” and to limit GHG emissions would be to find ways that would effectively price GHG emissions.

9.  Finally, one further comment on this:

“One of the keys to solving environmental problems is economic growth and wealth.  … So keep in mind that anything that unduly retards economic growth also retards ultimate environmental clean-up, including global warming.”

Not sure what you’re driving at here.

As far as developing countries go, efforts by Western nations to address climate change are actually net subsidies to them (by dampening Western demand for fossil fuels) and are providing incentives and investment for growth.

And as for Western economies, at least in principle internalizing externalities by enclosing commons (that have provided value which has not been factored into GDP) doesn’t retard economic growth, but enables it by forestalling the destruction of resources, permitting greater wealth-generating private transactions and reducing inefficiency.

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