Archive for August, 2008


August 1st, 2008 No comments

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Paul Krugman: "The only way we’re going to get action … is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral."

August 1st, 2008 2 comments

Paul Krugman reaches the above conclusion in his August 1 New York Time op-ed, which asks “Can This Planet Be Saved?”, while discussing the latest work by economists on the cost-benefit analsys of taking action to mitigate potential climate risks – this time by Harvard`s Marty Weitzman, whose work I have discussed several times before).

The op-ed certainly shows the frustration of Krugman, who was one of more than 2500 Nobel Laureate and other economists who in 1997 signed  the “Economists’ Statement on Climate Change” that  acknowledged the conclusions of the preceding IPCC report (that man was having a discernable influence on climate), asserted the economic feasibility of greenhouse gas reductions without harming the American economy, and recommended market-based policies.  Key parts of the op-ed are the following:

What’s at stake in that fight [over environmental policy], above all, is the question of whether we’ll take action against climate change before it’s utterly too late.

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.

Now for the bad news: sheer irresponsibility may be a winning political strategy.

Mr. McCain’s claim that opponents of offshore drilling are responsible for high gas prices is ridiculous — and to their credit, major news organizations have pointed this out. Yet Mr. McCain’s gambit seems nonetheless to be working: public support for ending restrictions on drilling has risen sharply, with roughly half of voters saying that increased offshore drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that’s why I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s response to Mr. McCain’s energy posturing — that it was “the same old politics.” Mr. Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.

(emphasis added)

I think that Krugman has a legitimate concern about pandering to voters on energy prices, even as Krugman`s a bit too close to the political struggle to acknowledge that environmental policies of course affect energy prices, and that “sheer irresponsibility” has been a winning political strategy for as long as – well, for as long as there have been politicians.

As I have noted elsewhere, there is an extremely wide array of opinion that carbon taxes would be the most effective and least damaging approach, and, if rebated or applied to reduce taxes on income or labor, would find long-term political support, yet politicians refuse to mention them, but instead present us with monstrous giveaways like those included in the Warner-Lieberman bill (which McCain`s bill resembles).  Heck, even Exxon, AEI, RAND and the American Council for Capital Formation have come out in favor of carbon taxes! 

Krugman explores Weitzman a little more closely in a July 29 blog post at the New York Times.  That post, and the further discussions it links to, is well worth exploring.  However, one can see Krugman`s train of thought at the very end, where he asks:

The question is, can we mobilize people to make modest sacrifices to protect against low-probability catastrophes in the distant future?

He`s obviously decided over the past few days that the way to mobilize people is to let his dander fly.  While I believe that a little more sophistication is needed, I would note that Gene Callahan, at least, has argued that swinging a moral club is an appropriate weapon, even for libertarians.  I applaud Krugman for letting not only McCain but also Obama feeling some of his lash.

I note that there are some commentators already wringing their hands over Krugman`s moralizing, but they very curiously fail to comment on the very real rent-seeking (and climate risk-shifting) and PR manipulation by fossil fuel interests that lies at the core of the policy deadlock.


PS:  Some of my thoughts on the current policy deadlock are as follows:

– many fossil fuel firms want to be compensated – in the form of new pork for gigantic and iffy “clean coal” projects – for budging from their current free ride on our common atmosphere;

– fossil fuel interests, including their customer chain, have great political pull in both parties (for example, nobody is yet willing to let American car manufacturers suffer their deserved fate, and Byrd and Rockefeller have alotof pull);

– financial firms – other than insurers – all looking for a cap and trade scheme, so they can profit from carbon trading;

– many firms who see opportunities in new technologies are busy fighting for advantage in the draft legislation; 

– not least, politicans are looking for legislation that promises the greatest flow of pork and campaign contributions, and have little interest in being open or hoinest with taxpayers;

– Democrats have little stomach for leadership – at least until the American people finish hanging the Republican party over its disastrous foreign policy and obvious corruption;

– there are considerable opportunities for policies that improve our tax system and regulation of energy resources and infrastructure.  I look for Republicans to start offering them after they have completely squandered their turn at the wheel of state, and are locked again into minority status in Congress.



Gene Callahan: public moral opprobrium is an appropriate non-statist lever against climate change

August 1st, 2008 2 comments

I previously noted Gene Callahan`s interesting essay, “How a Free Society Could Solve Global Warming”, in the October 2007 issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, at the website of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).

While I haven`t yet taken the time to review on these pages all of Callahan`s arguments, one of his points that deserves prominent mention – and is particularly salient today – is that public moral pressure is a perfectly appropriate way by which concerned citizens, acting in the market of public opinion, can inflluence behavior that generates externalities:

Even when economic transactions generate so-called negative
externalities (activities that shower harms on third parties), I still
contend that the free market is the best institution for identifying
and reducing the problems.

One way negative externalities can be addressed without turning to
state coercion is public censure of individuals or groups widely
perceived to be flouting core moral principles or trampling the common
, even if their actions are not technically illegal. Large, private
companies and prominent, wealthy individuals are generally quite
sensitive to public pressure campaigns.

To cite just one recent, significant example, Temple Grandin, a
notable advocate for the humane treatment of livestock, asserts that
McDonald’s is the world leader in improving slaughterhouse conditions.
While many executives at the fast-food giant genuinely may be concerned
with the welfare of cattle, pigs, and chickens, undoubtedly a strong
element of self-interest is also at work here, as the company realizes
that corporate image affects consumers’ buying decisions.

But that self-interest does not negate the laudable outcome of the
pressure McDonald’s has applied to its suppliers to meet the stringent
standards it has set for animal-handling facilities. Similarly, to the
degree that the broad public regards manmade global warming as a
serious problem, companies will strive to be seen as “good corporate
citizens” that are addressing the matter.

(emphasis added, of course)


Categories: AGW, Callahan, climate change, moral pressure Tags: