Thursday, May 21, 2015

libertarians on climate change

I've been meaning to blog about this and a poll on the facebook page of the Australian Libertarian Society reminded me to do so.

According to the poll, which asked libertarians in the group to answer whether they believe in anthropogenic global warming*, about 2/3 said yes and 1/3 said no. I'd compare that to the overall public but I'm finding a big range of numbers and questions are never worded the same anyway. But it seems similar to the overall right wing opinion, or perhaps a bit higher acceptance, but still drastically less than among climate scientists. I'm interested particularly in libertarians because they are consistently opposed to government intervention in the economy, while Democrats are consistently in favor of it, and Republicans are a pretty mixed bag.

Motivated reasoning is very obviously going on; that's the only way an objective scientific topic could become such a partisan issue. But on which side? Both sides are frequently guilty of it, no matter how often science denialism is defined as an attribute of the right. But on this issue it seems to be abundantly clear that it's only happening on the right.**

A comment on the poll summed up what I believe is the reason the right uses to explain the alleged motivated reasoning of the left: "[It] seems clear that many would like to leverage AGW as a tool for greater government intervention in our lives, massive increases in the size of the state, and subordination to instruments of global governance."

This just makes NO sense to me. If global warming weren't true, why on earth would the left make it up to try to force more government on us? Why wouldn't they use the amount of government they can get away with imposing on us to fix one of the many many real common-resource problems? Why wouldn't they simply exaggerate the dangers of issues anyone can easily verify are problems, and that may even require more urgent action to turn around, like deforestation, the collapse of ocean ecosystems, overpopulation, human rights abuses, etc? Why waste so much energy fighting over the existence of a problem instead of over solutions to undeniable problems? Why would they want to invent a new reason for global governance if the right is already so reactionary to government intervention due to fears of slippery slopes? Doesn't it just give the slope a scarier endpoint?

I don't get it.

On the other hand, libertarians have an extremely obvious reason to deny climate change, just like they often deny other market failures. It's easier to deny the problem than to come up with a plausible nongovernmental solution to it.

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk arguing that behavioral economics does not justify government paternalism, and ended by saying that we libertarians should not take the approach of ignoring solid scientific evidence of mistaken reasoning and arguing the point on this basis. I intended, but forgot, to poke the bear a bit by making the analogy to climate change denialism, which I believe is a huge mistake because denialists have removed themselves from the discussion of what to do about it. Jerry Taylor gets it. The argument for liberty is not (or should not be) predicated on the perfection of markets or the perfection of individual decision-making, and where it is is where I usually depart from the hardliners.


* in effect; the wording was more complicated.

** I should say, I'm sure there's motivated reasoning going on on both sides in the sense that very few people are remotely scientifically literate so most people on both sides are holding much firmer beliefs than they can legitimately justify for the sake of party loyalty. But that only happened after it became a partisan issue in the first place.


Steve said...

Long before people were talking about global warming, environmentalists were already trying to reduce coal mining and coal power plants and oil drilling and refining and driving and so on and so forth, for various reasons including oil spills, habitat destruction, non-CO2 pollution (mercury etc.), overpopulation concerns, etc. Then when people started suggesting Maybe carbon dioxide causes dangerous global warming??, such an environmentalist would naturally be motivated to latch on to this idea, exaggerate the danger, and advocate the same anti-industrialization policies that they were already pushing. It doesn't seem so far-fetched to me.

Vera L. te Velde said...

Ok, that sounds more plausible.

Lupis42 said...

I submitted a previous version of this, which seems to have been et by the internet gremlins, so here goes the abbreviated version:

As someone who views AGW as a thing that a) exists, b) represents a serious threat to the living standards of future humans, and c) is massively misrepresented by people on both sides of the political spectrum, here are some devil's advocate style answers.

-Why wouldn't they simply exaggerate the dangers of issues anyone can easily verify are problems, and that may even require more urgent action to turn around, like deforestation, the collapse of ocean ecosystems, overpopulation, human rights abuses, etc?

Because the left has been doing exactly that for a while, and it hasn't been working. Many on the right don't view most of those as collective action problems as affecting us, if they even view them as problems. (Overpopulation, in particular, is not something that anyone who subscribes to the Julian Simon/Bryan Caplan view would accept as a problem).

-Why waste so much energy fighting over the existence of a problem instead of over solutions to undeniable problems?

Because it provided a means to reframe many of the arguments Steve May brought up (oil spills, pollution, deforestation). The environmental movement was largely synonymous with 'anti-market luddites' through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, until it found (or invented, according to the hoax premise) a way to brand it's opponents as science deniers.

As Steve said above, it's hard not to be suspicious when the Left discovers a crisis that will destroy the world unless we do a bunch of things that they wanted to do all along.

BJP said...

As a libertarian climate skeptic (depending on how one defines the phrase), I'll speculate on the reason the left has motivated reasoning on climate. In addition to your quote (which I think is correct), climate change is both squishy and dire which makes it a wonderful tool for addressing pretty much anything the left wants. "Squishy" because pretty much anything can be said to be related to climate change because 1) most things are affected by the climate and 2) the climate is not exactly the same now as it was at previous time X. Just search for "things caused by global warming" and you'll find many comically extensive lists. "Dire" because the claim that climate change has essentially infinite consequences allows most discussions of tradeoffs to be shut down (see second paragraph below). Should we reduce fossil fuel usage at a very high economic cost? Clearly yes, because the alternative is possible extinction, or at least the end of our way of life as we know it -- it doesn't really matter how big the economic cost is now when those are the alternatives. So, climate change presents a tool to demand government control of essentially anything with no regard to the economic tradeoffs that might otherwise favor non-governmental solutions.

I think this pretty thoroughly explains why the left would have motivated reasoning on this topic. But of course I do realize there is also a strong motivation for motivated reasoning with regard to libertarians, to which I am surely subject as well. So, I try to set my bar for convincing refutations of my position lower than I otherwise would. Even with that, however, I'm yet to be convinced. I think Jonathan Adler's essay that somehow convinced Jerry Taylor is very good and I agree with pretty much all of it. But my take away is that, due to its logic, we should increase foreign aid to poor, vulnerable countries, and the absolute size of this increase would be far, far lower than pretty much anything proposed to "seriously" deal with climate change. I'm extra friendly to this suggested course of action because of the entirely different reason that I think we favor our local poor at the expense of the global poor far too much already. Taylor's argument that the small chance of catastrophe should be driving our decision process is wholly unconvincing to me. I think it should be wholly unconvincing to almost everyone else also, or else they should all also be Christians a la Pascal's Wager. The product of "infinity" and "zero" is indeterminate, not "large" like Taylor suggests is necessarily true. It could be large, but we can't assume it is so simply because we're multiplying by "infinity". When I do the math, I think I come out with "zero" being sufficiently small to outweigh "infinity" in a qualitatively similar way to deciding not to pay for meteor insurance for my house. Here's what I think is a good explanation of why I think "zero" is small: