From the standpoint of an economist, the logic of global warming is straightforward. There are costs to letting it happen, there are costs to preventing it, and by comparing the two we decide what, if anything, ought to be done. I am fairly sure, however, that many of those who are sure we should be doing something about it do not see the question that way. What I see as costs, they see as benefits.
Reduced energy use is a cost if you approve of other people being able to do what they want, which includes choosing to live in the suburbs, drive cars instead of taking mass transit, heat or air condition their homes to what they find a comfortable temperature. But it is a benefit if you believe that you know better than other people how they should best live their lives—know that a European style inner city with a dense population, local stores, local jobs, mass transit instead of private cars, is a better, more human, lifestyle than living in the anonymous suburbs, commuting to work, knowing few of your neighbors. It is an attitude that I associate with an old song
about little houses made of ticky-tacky—meaning houses the singer didn't like and was therefore confident that other people shouldn't be living in, occupied by people whose life style she thought she knew and was confident she disapproved of. A very arrogant, and very human, attitude.
There are least three obvious candidates for reducing global warming that do not require a reduction in energy use. One is nuclear power—a well established, if somewhat expensive, technology that produces no CO2 and can be expanded more or less without limit. One is natural gas, which produces considerably less carbon dioxide per unit of power than coal, for which it is the obvious substitute. Fracking has now sharply lowered the price of natural gas, with the result that U.S. output of CO2 has actually fallen. The third and more speculative candidate is geoengineering—one or another of several approaches that have been suggested for cooling earth without reducing CO2 output.
One would expect that someone seriously worried about global warming would take an interest in all three alternatives. Of course, in each case, there are arguments against as well as arguments for. But if one believes that global warming is a very serious problem and alternative solutions are costly, one ought to be biased in favor of each of them, inclined to look for arguments for, not arguments against.
In my experience, that is not how people who campaign against global warming act. They are less likely than others, not more, to support nuclear power, to approve of fracking as a way of producing lots of cheap natural gas, or to be in favor of experiments to see whether one or another version of geoengineering will work. That makes little sense if they see a reduction in power consumption as a cost, but quite a lot of sense if they see it as a benefit.
I have focused on global warming, but the pattern exists in other contexts and across the political spectrum. When 9/11 happened, a lot of the people who insisted that the threat of terrorism now made it unfortunately necessary to restrict individual privacy and civil liberties in a variety of ways were people who were in favor of the same policies before 9/11.
The general approach is perhaps best summed up in a quote attributed to Rahm Emanuel, back when he was working for Obama:
You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
The argument for sharply increasing federal spending and doing it with borrowed money was that it was an emergency measure made necessary by the economic crisis. For Emanuel, and presumably his boss, it was an opportunity to do things they would have wanted to do whether or not there was a crisis. The argument for using regulation or carbon taxes to reduce the output of carbon dioxide is that it is made necessary by the threat of global warming. For many of those who make that argument, it is an opportunity to make other people live the way those people think they should.
Labels: civil liberties, environmentalists, geoengineering, global warming