Libertarians and Climate, cont.

My post on the crisis for libertarianism has generated a lot of discussion and a response from Cato’s Jerry Taylor. Before answering Taylor, let me first say that I recognize that the views of libertarians on climate change are not monolithic. Just last week I heard Tyler Cowen describe climate change as one of the principle challenges facing the world. On the other hand, Cato didn’t take out a newspaper ad proclaiming that libertarians have diverse views on the state of climate science and policy. Surely some meaning can be read into the choice to advertise that particular message.

Now, to Taylor’s response. The heart of the post is this:

The claims emanating from the world of ecological science have not stood up well in the past on any number of fronts. Of course, failures on old fronts do not necessarily mean failures on new fronts. But it does mean that skepticism has proven quite useful in the past and that majorities in the academic community are not infallible. To suggest that a movement is intellectually bankrupt if it is not persuaded to grow the state by a show of scientific hands is to suggest that one hasn’t been paid attention to events over the past half-century or so.But that’s a digression. I fully agree with Avent when he says “A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having.” The unfortunate fact, however, is that fundamental reality regarding the real future impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is anything but clear . . . as even IPCC reports are happy to tell us. Moreover, scientists can’t tell us what to about that reality even if climate scientists could agree about what the future holds in store for us. Answering the “what to do” question requires and examination of costs and benefits, a consideration of the distributional effects from the various strategies that we could implement, and, yes, a judgment about the costs associated with surrendering various degrees of economic and social liberty.

I fully agree with Taylor that skepticism of scientific findings is justified; indeed, the process of scientific inquiry itself is basically orderly skepticism. I also agree that science cannot definitively tell us what the future will look like and what we ought to do about it. The conclusions of science are probabilistic, and policy recommendations based on those probabilities are formed based on models of economics and other social sciences that are subject to a great deal of uncertainty. I strongly disagree with Jim Manzi’s views on climate policy, but I recognize that they’re based on plausible readings of the available data. The burden is on those prescribing action to grapple with his arguments and explain convincingly why they’re wrong, which is something I have endeavored to do.

I wonder what part of healthy skepticism or of an “examination of costs and benefits, etc.” involves the misrepresentation of scientific research? (And I challenge Taylor to read the Swanson and Tsonis paper cited in the ad and declare that it has not been misrepresented, even if he now wishes to “leave that scientific debate to others.”) I wonder which part of healthy skepticism involves accepting with the utmost credulity the findings of every paper with which one agrees, and dismissing out of hand every paper with which one disagrees?

In fact, it’s very difficult to skeptically review the scientific literature and conclude that the consensus is wrong. That’s why folks like Jim Manzi (and Ronald Bailey, who has revised his views somewhat since writing the book Taylor cites) are reluctant to confidently endorse the views in that Cato ad. But rather than accept, as an institution, that the science is probably correct and go about its business arguing that no state action is required (or whatever policy it might decide upon) Cato chose to betray the principles of honest skepticism that no doubt attracted many of libertarianism’s better minds. They’re sure to notice this choice. Hence, crisis.

Comments

  1. RDJonsson says:

    “a judgment about the costs associated with surrendering various degrees of economic and social liberty.”

    Yes, and the scientific knowledge of those costs is so much clearer…

  2. Doug says:

    That’s the problem with understanding philosophy but not science. Not being able to prove a conclusion 100% doesn’t argue for the null hypothesis.

    It’s a strongly slanted and secular version of Pascal’s dilemma. If man-made global warming is reality and we don’t take some concerted action, we’re screwed. If the 2.5% probability that global warming isn’t happening or isn’t man-made and we take action, there’s a small reduction in economic growth for no good reason. That there remain unconvinced people shouldn’t and won’t delay a policy response.

    Smart libertarians are arguing for a revenue-neutral carbon tax instead of other more complicated and prescriptive regulations.

  3. Mixner says:

    In his speech to the summit meeting on global warming organized by Arnold Schwarzenegger in November, President Obama said the following:

    Few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.

    This statement is a misrepresentation of the science. Scientists do not claim it is a “fact” or “beyond dispute” that increases in storm and hurricane strength in recent years were caused by climate change. The causes are controversial and debated. There is no consensus.

    Why didn’t Ryan and other liberal bloggers criticize Obama for this misrepresentation of climate science? Why do they only attack (alleged) misrepresentations from the other side of the debate? Why the double standard?

  4. Mixner says:

    It’s a strongly slanted and secular version of Pascal’s dilemma. If man-made global warming is reality and we don’t take some concerted action, we’re screwed. If the 2.5% probability that global warming isn’t happening or isn’t man-made and we take action, there’s a small reduction in economic growth for no good reason. That there remain unconvinced people shouldn’t and won’t delay a policy response.

    This is not a serious argument. The risks from climate change are represented by a range of probabilities and outcomes, not a simple “screwed” vs “not screwed” dichotomy. And the premise of Pascal’s Wager is that accepting the wager carries little or no cost. But the likely cost of a large and near-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions isn’t small. It’s enormous.

  5. Grant says:

    I hope I don’t sound like a raging libertopian when this is read, but I do believe one of the best mechanisms for predicting climate change and its effects is a market. Specifically a prediction market.

    Yes they are flawed, imperfect creations which at their best only aggregate existing knowledge. But they’re the best thing we’ve got. Numerous studies have shown them to be superior to other forms of consensus-reaching predictions (and yes, much better than democratic or republican polling).

  6. hapa says:

    grant: we are talking about fending off a worst-case situation that is growing more likely every day we operate our machines and manage our lands as we do.

    if you set up a market, you know, ask nassim taleb about how well the market of markets managed the risks of leveraging imaginary assets — a catastrophic failure — badly envisioned, badly hedged, badly capitalized.

    you don’t want to know probabilities here. it’s very much enough to say that the systems are capable of nonlinear feedback that accelerates risk beyond your ability to reach the emergency exit. whether 1000ppm means you get 100ft tsunamis before your next birthday or it means you have 50 years to evacuate miami, once you got to a concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere that could feasibly trigger a run up to 1000, you’re toast.

    people really need to stop trying to pay for mild adaptation with compound interest. that’s no longer the question. the question now is can we keep away from the point of no return.

  7. hapa says:

    also — as someone who followed the real estate bubble from the corner of my eye for most of the decade and whose vote in 2000 was influenced by the elimination of glass-steagall and various other “just shoot me” components of finance at the time — i have to say that before the “bets on bets on debts on debts” stuff became public information, i was very sympathetic to the “discount rate” approach to global warming. people were — under the spell — of the “great moderation.”

    now that same argument just looks like drooling idiocy.

  8. Doug says:

    Mixner, I’m by no means an expert but I’ve heard about 3% of global GDP. That’s a ton of money but per capita most of us won’t miss it. Pascal also had a 50/50 chance and the science is supposed to have a p-value around 99%.

    Of course, the 3% doesn’t count the legions of government employees busily corrupting and distorting the correction if we choose the cap-and-trade route instead of the carbon tax. That’s why in my opinion, people who love liberty should stop living for junkies with PhDs to question massive results and focus on finding alcoholics with newspapers to advocate elegant solutions.

  9. Mixner says:

    Mixner, I’m by no means an expert but I’ve heard about 3% of global GDP. That’s a ton of money but per capita most of us won’t miss it.

    Where have you heard that? How much reduction in emissions, warming and costs is that 3% of GDP projected to buy us? And how will the GDP cost be distributed across different nations and populations?

    Pascal also had a 50/50 chance and the science is supposed to have a p-value around 99%.

    I don’t understand this statement.

  10. Doug says:

    Mixner, here are the first two Google results I got that give an answer:
    http://www.cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp44.pdf Note this is the Cato institute claiming. I didn’t read past the Executive Summary, but that states that the estimates are for .1-4% of GDP.

    http://www.ecogeek.org/content/view/1576/81/

    The Economist had .1% year and global GDP 1.3% lower in 2050 than it might have been.

    http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_JTPVNRP

    I really don’t claim this to be my issue and I happily grant that I’m being superficial, but none of the estimates I’ve read scare me.

    The reference to Pascal is just to say that while you’re right to challenge my analogy for pretending a false positive is costless, the probabilities don’t match either. You can disregard without losing any intellectual luster.

  11. Well, the simple fact is that any situation where it becomes necessary to get the right result becomes a crisis for libertarianism. As it happens,they are ideally placed to act as pawns for deniers focused on financial gain by not paying for what they dump in the atmosphere. But we’ll see this again if any meaningful universal coverage scheme is proposed for health care. And, hey, libertarians could get a great deal on pistachios this week- libertarian pistachios, that is.

    Me, I’m guessing we don’t need stop signs or traffic police. That’s not a philosophy, just an observation of the real world. It might even be worth proving, if it earned you a degree or a refereed publication in a scholarly journal. Maybe some hottie at a cocktail party would think you were totally awesome for all that.

    It would even save us billions, but we all know most people would just think you were nuts, and nobody in their right mind will haunt the halls of their legislature pushing the idea.

    I’ll even go out on a limb here and predict that the best efforts of libertarianism will produce no plan for the people of the world to act in unison to avert disaster.

    Which I guess is kind of what Ryan was saying.

  12. Infidel753 says:

    That there remain unconvinced people shouldn’t and won’t delay a policy response.

    Exactly so. You never reach the point where every last person is convinced, especially when there is a strong ideological commitment involved which conflicts with the scientific consensus. There are still plenty of people who remain “unconvinced” about evolution (and who use arguments and “logic” remarkably similar to those of the AGW denialists), and we even still have a few people who are unconvinced about the Earth being spherical. You never convince every last one. But that’s not grounds for pretending that we don’t know, to within a reasonable approximation of certainty, what the reality of the situation is.