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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Give That Man a Cigar!

David Friedman makes a brilliant point: The debate over whether or not global warming is caused by humans is irrelevant to the debate about what to do in response!

9 comments:

  1. Eh, I agree that there are some people who emotionally say, "If we caused it, we have to clean it up." (And I'm not making up strawmen--someone said this to me at RealClimate or Env-Econ when I was arguing policy.)

    But I have to side against Friedman on the big picture. If humans have been responsible for the majority of the warming in the 20th century, then their activities will cause a lot more warming in the 21st. So that is a good reason to consider "action" on the matter.

    On the other hand, if it's something like the sun that caused most of the 20th century, then restricting CO2 emissions isn't going to do anything.

    Thus it seems to me that it makes perfect sense that arguments over policy overlap with arguments over the scientific explanation.

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  2. Bob, I think you're dodging Friedman's central point by positing special cases:

    1) The warming is caused by the sun, and it will subside, and we can't do anything about it anyway.
    CONCLUSION: Do nothing.

    2) The warming is caused by humans, by Co2 emissions, and we could act to cut them.
    CONCLUSION: Do something!

    But
    3) what if the warming is caused by the sun, it will not stop, and the results will be catastrophic?
    CONCLUSION: Do something!

    Or
    4) The warming is caused by humans, it is caused by CO2 emissions, but it is self-regulating and will damp itself out?
    CONCLUSION: Do nothing.

    Friedman's larger point stands: the real issues are:
    1) Is it a serious problem? and
    2) Can we do something about it?

    If the answer is 'yes' in both cases, then we should do something! If either answer is 'no', then it would be silly or pointless to do so.

    Whether or not man caused it is fundamentally irrelevant.

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  3. Semi-OT: Why is it that now people who are in favor of free markets, criticize anti-carbon policies on the grounds that all kinds of catastrophes would result from energy being expensive?

    Not to go out on a limb here, but wouldn't it be a pretty damning indictment of the free market (indeed, any social system) if you could show that it heavily relied on the existence of cheap or easily obtainable energy? I thought free markets were supposed to be amazing in their ability to economize on resources.

    I can't imagine Bob advising the remote republic of Podunkistan and saying, "Alright guys, you need to have clear, well-defined property rights, and cut taxes ... uh huh ... oh, really now? So it costs a lot to port oil over there? ... Ah, I see. Well then, **** it, Rothbard's whole spiel doesn't work there, just make off with whatever loot you can. Yeah. ... The account number is ..."

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  4. I can't imagine Bob advising the remote republic of Podunkistan and saying, "Alright guys, you need to have clear, well-defined property rights, and cut taxes ... uh huh ... oh, really now? So it costs a lot to port oil over there? ... Ah, I see. Well then, **** it, Rothbard's whole spiel doesn't work there, just make off with whatever loot you can. Yeah. ... The account number is ..."

    I can't imagine it either.

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  5. Gene, you are ignoring the points raised by luos.

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  6. Bob is right, luos raised some fair points.

    I disagree with Friedman-Callahan here. They are oversimplifying what it means to "Do something." A very serious question whether or not 'doing something' involves the use of coercion. Consider the following two courses of action:

    1 (Non-coercive): Personally cut back on my CO2 emissions and pressure everybody I know into doing the same.

    2 (Coercive): Pass a law to the effect that anyone who produces more than a certain amount of CO2 must pay a fine.

    If 'doing something' simply means something like 1, then Friedman-Callahan are correct; The cause is irrelevant. However, if 'doing something' involves the use of coercion, then proof of human causation is crucial to know whether or not such a course of action is justified. Because if global warming is caused by humans, then coercive action is defensive; and if it's not caused by humans, then coercive action is aggressive.

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  7. Jeff, you make a valid point in that we might do DIFFERENT things about GW if it's caused by humans or by, say, the sun. But I don't see how that negates Friedman's contention.

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