Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Climate Coup: Global Warming's Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives / Patrick J. Michaels, ed. -- Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2011

In the Introduction to Climate Coup, the volume's editor Patrick Michaels describes how he leads his students through an dialog in which he links climate change to any subject of public significance that his students can name. Furthermore, he claims that the effects that it is having are in general deleterious. He writes that this "game" is enjoyable, but rather than giving "glib answers to insouciant students," Michaels decided "to consult some experts" regarding his views. The result is Climate Coup, a volume containing eight papers discussing law, politics, defense, peer-review, trade, economic development, health, and education and their relationship to climate change.

Of Michaels's eight experts, five have positions (along with Michaels) with the Cato Institute, a sixth has been frequently published by the Cato Institute, a seventh works (along with Michaels) at the University of Virginia, and an eighth is a co-author with Michaels. This is not to say that none of the authors is well-regarded or does not have views worth serious consideration, but merely that by selecting these authors, Michaels is not really testing his hypothesis. The volume is, instead, an effort to make his case by employing his ideological allies, In general, the wider community of experts does not support his case.

Broadly put, Michaels and his co-authors argue that the dangers posed by climate change are overstated and that continued economic development is our best remedy for the harms it poses, even if that means continuing to emit carbon into the atmosphere.

The first chapter on law by Roger Pilon and Evan Turgeon is among the best. It lays out the legislative and legal history of environmental regulation, arguing that the executive branch is relatively free to implement whatever regulations it deems appropriate to protect us from climate change. This is judged to be overweening state power that is in conflict with the principles of limited government established by the Constitution. The value of this chapter lies in its legal brief related to the executive's regulatory power. It does not, however, make a particularly strong case that these powers are unconstitutional nor does it address the argument that the Constitution is an evolving document to be interpreted differently by different generations. In the late 18th century, limiting the power of the Crown may well have been a necessary political goal to provide the benefits described in the Constitution's Preamble, but limiting the power of a more democratic government may not be so critical in the early 21st century, particularly as we now understand how common market failures are and how disasterous they can be.

The second chapter is written by Michaels himself. It is among the weakest. He attempts to describe the recent political circumstance related to climate change policies and regulations, but fails to provide any coherent story that sheds light on our politics. It is instead, a hodge podge of disjointed observations related to cap and trade legislation, the "climategate" emails, the 2009 Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The third chapter, by Ross McKitrick, is a critique of the peer review process used by scientific journals. This is something that climate change "skeptics" have been complaining about for quite some time. They argue that the peer review process is controlled by a small group of editors who dismiss any findings that contradict the editors' views about climate change. Consequently, the appearance of a consensus has formed around specific climate change hypotheses, when in fact many scientists disagree with the received opinions.

It is interesting to note that the hypotheses that journal editors have been said to have summarily dismissed have changed. At first, the skeptics asserted that there was no real consensus that the planet is warming, but such views could not be published. Eventually, they began accepting that the planet is warming, but that the warming was not a product of human actions. Today, they appear to be coming around to accepting that human actions -- at least in part -- is warming the planet, but that the consequences of this are not as grave as is being asserted by the experts. The only consistency in the skeptics' position is that we shouldn't worry about climate change and that we should continue to emit carbon at the rates we have been, lest our economy suffer.

It is hard not to read McKitrick's complaints about the peer review process as so much sour grapes for not seeing his and his ideological friends' papers accepted for publication. If their arguments were genuinely strong, a cabal of editors could not keep them from the scientific community. Today, science employs "pre-publication" databases; the most prominent of which is arXiv (see which permits any academic or person sponsored by someone with posting privileges to post papers to the arXiv database. In many fields, particularly physics, publication in a peer reviewed journal will only occur after the paper has been posted to arXiv and has been favorably cited in arXiv by other researchers. Publication in a peer reviewed journal is becoming a way of archiving a finalized version of already well-received research. Pre-publication databases and other open source venues are eroding, if not destroying, the power of journal editors as gatekeepers of scientific research.

Ivan Eland's chapter is on U.S. security. Eland argues that the recent evaluations by the Defense Department overstate the dangers that climate change poses to U.S. strategic interests. His arguments are better than most in Climate Coup. Eland acknowledges that the most egregious effects of climate change are likely to affect Africa and southern Asia, but these regions historically have not been seen to be vital to US interests and, according to Eland, are not likely to be so in the future. More realistic threats to U.S. interests stem from the stationing of U.S. forces around the world. If these forces were brought home, the U.S. would not be blamed for the suffering that climate change might cause. Furthermore, the oceanic barriers that the U.S. enjoys will be sufficient to insulate the country from social and political upheavals in the rest of the world.

Eland's analysis is consistent with the growing isolationist tendency among libertarians and is compatible with the views of the peace movement of the American left. Furthermore, he indicts the Pentagon for exaggerating the security threat posed by climate change. Its motive is to justify continued or increased defense appropriations.

Among the better chapters in Climate Coup is Sallie James's article on international trade. James argues that any country that would unilaterally implement a policy to reduce carbon emissions will place itself in a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis countries that do not implement comparable policies. In this respect, she particularly criticizes cap and trade policies. In principle, this sounds right; however, it isn't clear how significant the disadvantage would be nor whether a cap and trade policy might not stimulate the creation of alternative industries that would in the long run provide an economic advantage to a carbon regulating country. Furthermore, she does not entertain the possibility that were the United States to show international leadership by passing a meaningful carbon tax, this would create an economic climate that would allow others to follow suit without economic disadvantage.

James also considers the possible equalizing effective of a tariff placed on goods coming from countries that do not take measures to reduce their carbon emissions. She concludes that either these countries would merely take their business elsewhere or the tariffs would ignite retaliatory measure that would destroy the possibility for international cooperation which is necessary to tackle a global problem like climate change.

While one might take issue with some of James's conclusions, one must acknowledge the expertise of neo-liberals regarding the dynamics of international trade. The dangers, however, must be weighed against the costs (often externalized) of continuing to emit carbon.

In the sixth chapter, Indur M. Goklony addresses the consequences of climate change on developing nations. It is widely believed that developing nations are most vulnerable to the harms that climate change threatens, both because of their geographies and their poverty. Goklony argues that imposing emission controls on developing nations will cripple their economic growth which will be necessary for mitigating or adapting to the harms of climate change.

Goklony's arguments are reprised in Robert E. Davis's chapter on health. Davis challenges the claim that climate change has caused significant health problems and will in the future cause significant health problems; however, the claim about the interaction of climate change and health in the past is of little consequence as few people argue that climate change has yet had a significant effect on public health. Regarding future health threats, it is hard to believe that the dislocation of coastal populations, droughts, floods, wildfires, and transformed ecosystems will not have significant effects on human health. Davis argues that populations have dealt with all of these kinds of problems in the past and with continued economic growth, health indicators will continue to improve even in the face of climate change.

The final chapter by Neal McCluskey examines how climate change is portrayed in primary and secondary schools. It is so riddled with elementary fallacies that it is not really worth reviewing.

The recurrent appeal to the importance of economic growth for addressing climate change is at the heart of Climate Coup. As climate skeptics have progressively abandoned positions that they have held previously, their arguments are crystallizing around the view that the dangers of climate change are too slight to justify public regulation of the industry. This should come as no surprise as the skeptics rarely are climate scientists, but are more often economists, businessmen, and politicians. Their stake in the carbon industry has been revealed by many including Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their excellent book, Merchants of Doubt, reviewed in this blog.

What is most worrying about the skeptics' public relations campaigns to stave off action to protect the planet is that as green house gases accumulate in the atmosphere, we genuinely risk reaching a tipping point that will propel the planet into a new stable state that makes civilization as we know it or even life itself impossible on the planet. To argue that we must continue down this path as the most effective way of escaping its dangers is a kind of brinksmanship that risks everything and it is based on scientific heterodoxy and a dubious economic theory.

At the same time, it is important to accurately assess the genuine dangers that climate change possess and not to overstate them, particularly as geo-engineering proposals are being seriously discussed. Geo-engineering would be enormously risky in that the unintended consequences of deliberately modifying the ecosystem to the extent that unprecedented climate change might be halted may cause greater problems still.

No comments:

Post a Comment