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Steve Chapman is Chicago’s best libertarian columnist. I’ve admired and learned from his work for years, so it was disappointing to read his column in today’s Chicago Tribune titled “Republicans vs. the environment: Ignoring science and forgetting their history.”
In general, Chapman’s point is that candidates for the Republican presidential nomination (Mitt Romney excepted) are making fools of themselves by not buying into the orthodoxy of catastrophic, man-made global warming. He thinks conservatives and libertarians ought to shut up and sit down when it comes to the scientific debate over climate change, and limit our participation in the debate to advocating a carbon tax instead of cap and trade.
I’m not sure Chapman has been paying attention to the scientific debate. He should check our 800-page critique of the latest IPCC report, or the presentations delivered by more than 100 scientists and policy analysts at our First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth International Conferences on Climate Change. He also might want to check out the live-streaming coverage of our 6th International Conference on Climate Change — starting at 8 a.m. June 30 and running through the afternoon of July 1 — to see who the fools are.
Here are some excerpts from Chapman’s column and my responses:
Republicans like Palin often compete to see who can sound most indifferent to the environment.
Republicans sound indifferent to the environment because they have figured out that the environment is cleaner and safer than it has been at any time in our lifetimes or our parents lifetimes, that there are no new environmental “disasters” or “crises” on the horizon, and that the environmental movement just keeps tossing up its scary scenarios – and the media keeps repeating them as if they were based on real science – to advance an agenda that has little to do with the environment and lots to do with punishing businesses and expanding government authority. Republicans care as much as Democrats (and conservatives and libertarians as much as liberals) about a clean and safe environment. They just aren’t as gullible.
Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP presidential nominee, wrote, “When pollution is found, it should be halted at the source, even if this requires stringent government action.” As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed major environmental bills and called for “all-out war against the debauching of the environment.”
The fact that the environment is cleaner and safer today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s explains why Goldwater, Reagan, etc. were right to back environmental initiatives in their day. It also means Palin and others are right to oppose, as unnecessary, the plans of the environmentalist left today.
Bjorn Lomborg, a conservative hero for his 2001 book “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” now writes: “We have long moved on from any mainstream disagreements about the science of climate change. The crucial, relevant conversation of today is about what to do about climate change.”
In their book “Climate of Extremes,” published by the libertarian Cato Institute, scientists Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling Jr. assail various plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But they admit: “Humans are implicated in the planetary warming that began around 1975. Greenhouse gases are likely to be one cause, probably a considerable one …”
What Mitt Romney, Pat Michaels, and Bjorn Lomborg admit is different from what Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Mark Kirk deplore. Get them all in a room and they all will probably agree that human emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases contribute to their rising concentrations in the atmosphere, that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that if all other things stay the same, that could have a warming effect on climate, probably around 1 or 1.7 degrees C per century. It may be possible to tease out of the data some evidence of that this already occurred for some years in the recent past.
But they would also probably agree that “all other things” don’t stay the same, that this hypothetical possibility of an effect a century from now is just as likely to be wrong as correct – cancelled out by changes in clouds or ocean currents or sun spot activities, or even changes in human emissions — and that we do not need to reduce emissions now in a quixotic effort to “stop global warming.”
What’s more, the GOP doesn’t have to surrender its principles to confront environmental reality. There is plenty of room for disagreement, for instance, about how to combat global warming.
The method most congenial to personal and economic freedom is a carbon tax. Instead of putting the government behind favored forms of energy, as the administration likes to do, it would create strong incentives for people to find their own ways to reduce emissions.
It would achieve maximum benefits at minimum cost. It could be revenue-neutral, if the receipts were used to pay for other tax cuts.
Chapman is mistaken to think that conservatives and libertarians ought to limit their participation in the debate over climate change to whether an energy tax is better than cap and trade, or how much that tax should be. This concedes way too much to the other side.
By challenging the science, conservatives and libertarians make it clear that the scientific debate is not over, and by challenging blithe assertions that warmer is somehow less good for human and animal life than colder, we make it clear that reducing emissions is unnecessary, period. It is premature to force taxpayers and ratepayers to sacrifice in the name of an unproven theory. There are much more important and better understood issues that could be addressed with the resources it would take to wage an impossible war against natural climate change.
A carbon tax is hardly a liberal idea. Among its proponents are Gregory Mankiw, who headed the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain’s chief economist during his presidential campaign. But Republican politicians have no interest.
Chapman is right, finally, that “a carbon tax is hardly a liberal idea.” Republicans can be stupid too, and for many years on environmental issues they were. Their new principled and well-informed positions are a relief, and ought to be encouraged rather than mocked.