Archive for the ‘risk’ Category

Jim Manzi/Cato on climate: with flabby "libertariarian sinews", he advocates no panic, but domestic climate science and technology investments

August 18th, 2008 4 comments

[UPDATE:  See my follow-up post.]

Cato Unbound’s new climate issue features a lead essay by Jim Manzi, who is an MIT- and Wharton-trained statistician and CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (which uses pattern recognition and optimization models for sales and marketing).

Manzi is a newcomer to the climate commentary scene, but has made a splash in conservatives circles over the past year or so through a series of articles in the National Review and The American Scene.  Manzi’s bio at Cato states that Manzi’s position is that “global warming, while real, is a problem of limited magnitude, deserving a proportional response, not overreaction“.

Manzi’s essay at Cato is a polished rehashing of points that he has made elsewhere, tweaked shamelessly to appeal to libertarians, as in this lead-off paragraph:

“The danger of potentially catastrophic global warming is an almost paradigmatic case of decisionmaking under conditions of extreme uncertainty.  Of course, this is just another way of saying that many of the intellectual sinews of libertarianism are central to thinking through this problem.” (emphasis added)

While the essay is worth consideration, aside from this initial mention, it is painfully evident that Manzi’s “libertarian sinews” are rather flimsy; indeed, Manzi:

  •  makes no mention of basic Lockean-based libertarian principles (rights to property in one’s own person, in the fruits of one’s own labor, and in resources taken from nature when mixed with one’s own labor; and duties to abstain from harming others, from taking property of others, and to leave enough and as good for others when taking from the commons) that are relevant to environmental and public policy issues (see Rothbard; Edwin Dolan has laid an application of Lockean principles to climate change here; );

  • fails to acknowledge “environmental” problems as cases where resources are not clearly or effectively owned, either individually or on a community basis, so that some economic actors do not bear the costs or risks of their actions, which costs or risks are shifted to others against their will (see Cordato; Jon Adler makes similar points here); and

  • provides only a rudimentary discussion of public choice issues that, while noting both the difficulties of reaching a global agreement and that government policies to prepare for climate change may be both inefficient and hijacked special interests, disregards the possibilities that effective international steps can be taken by just a few countries and completely fails to consider the role that special interests have played to date in manipulating government policies and in protecting the “GHG emissions/risk-shifting is free” status quo.

Rather, Manzi:

(1) argues that the estimates for future damages that the IPPC derives from models appear rather modest,

(2) downplays the widespread agreement by economists (like Nordhaus) and others that standard cost-benefit analysis provides ample support for carbon pricing (particularly in the form of carbon taxes) now,

(3) argues that we cannot adequately gauge the “massive uncertainties” regarding the “danger of potentially catastrophic global warming” (addressing but failing to mention Weitzman),

(4) argues that the US should not adopt “insanely expensive” measures to “force massive change in the economy” via “rapid, aggressive emissions reductions”,

(5) lumps climate change in with other, external risks (like pandemics and rogues states, which risks, oddly, we actually try to manage), and

(6) and tones down his earlier pieces by presenting an artificially weakened case that,

if there is a real, though unquantifiably small, possibility of catastrophic climate change, and if we would ideally want some technological hedges as insurance against this unlikely scenario, and if raising the price of carbon to induce private economic actors to develop the technologies would be an enormously more expensive means of accomplishing this than would be advisable,” (emphasis added)

THEN the government might be justified in investing in “improved global climate prediction capability, visionary biotechnology to capture and recycle carbon dioxide emissions, or geo-engineering projects to change the albedo of the earth’s surface or atmosphere”.

Manzi concludes with a mix of a case for a surprisingly large government climate program (even if “rife with inefficiencies”) and a bashing of the worst case, while ignoring the middle ground:

“But consider that its costs would be on the order of 1/100th of the costs of imposing a large U.S. carbon tax. It could be massively inefficient and we would still be far better off in actually developing the long–lead-time technologies that we would want if faced with a currently unanticipated emergency.

Hedging against the risk to future generations of potential unanticipated impacts from global warming is a legitimate job for the U.S. government. Ideally, it would be tackled by the governments of the small number of countries with a sophisticated technology development capability acting in some kind of coordinated fashion. A massive carbon tax, a cap-and-trade rationing system, and the attempt to use the government to control the evolution of the energy sector of the economy are all billed as prudent reactions to this risk, but each is the opposite: an impractical, panicky reaction unworthy of a serious government.

I hope to address later various aspects of Manzi’s piece, but I think it is fair to conclude initially that it is not libertarian nor, ultimately, a balanced discussion, but rather a somewhat strange conservative position that we ought to worry about climate change and so the government should throw even MORE money at it, while refusing to harness markets to accomplish the research tasks Manzi wishes to fund or to ask those who are generating climate risks to internalize or shoulder any of the burden.

While this stance might please fossil fuel interests and their defenders, it’s hard to see what, exactly, in Manzi’s analysis – other than his opposition to “massive” carbon taxes – will appeal to libertarians.