By Adam Yoshida
have longed argued that one of the primary problems with the thinking of our well-meaning liberal friends is that they tend to live in the world of "wouldn't it be nice" and then attempt to argue that people who dissent from this view are just plain bad. Nowhere is that tendency better exemplified than in the battle over Climate Change.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of the "prisoner's dilemma." It's an exercise in game theory where two men are arrested for a crime and interrogated separately by the police. If one man informs on the other and the other does not, the informer will walk and the other will get ten years. If neither cracks than both will go free. If each betrays the other then each will get two years. It increasingly occurs to me that this the best paradigm through which to view the struggle over Anthropomorphic Global Warming and what to do about it.
Too often conservatives and libertarians have allowed themselves to get bogged down in the debate over whether global warming is occurring and, further, if it is whether humans are responsible for it. The problem, as I see it, is that this takes us into a charged debate over science that has us fighting an inconclusive battle of attrition over technical questions that are barely understood by the overwhelming majority of debaters. I think that we would be much better off if we used the example of the prisoner's dilemma to explain why the "solutions" to global warming proposed by the statist element -- assuming for the moment that they are 100% correct on the scientific aspects of the question -- are not only unworkable but destructive.
What do I mean? Well, ladies and gentlemen, let us consider the facts as they are presented to us. The advocates of a wide-ranging governmental response to AGW state that carbon emissions into the atmosphere are causing a change in the global climate and that the only way to arrest this is through enacting a program of state controls that will radically reduce the carbon produced by our businesses and homes. Let us parse that for the moment. We are speaking in global terms here. It means that emissions must be reduced to such a degree as is significant on global scale. That means one of two things.
Either everyone must reduce their emissions collectively or it means that we in the West must reduce our emissions so much as to compensate for non-reductions in the Third World.
While some may argue that these may take place in economically non-destructive ways, I would argue that that is simply impossible under the sort of timescale proposed (a few decades as opposed to the rest of the century, say). In the short-term, you can only reduce carbon emissions through heavy taxation and regulation of private enterprise and homes or through the mandating of the use of expensive and inefficient "green" technology. It may well be that the future will bring workable low or zero-carbon technologies but it doesn't seem likely to me that these will come about via state-funded projects. If these technologies were viable in the real-world than there would already be investors for them lined up around the block. To have GM produce $50,000 electric cars and then sell them to the public for $40,000 at a loss while being subsidized by the government isn't a winning strategy.
Remember: China's emissions are already more than those of the United States. They are on the way to being more than those of the United States and Europe combined (certainly, they will be a few decades hence at the current pace). India's are also rapidly increasing. China and India -- among many others -- have populations just grabbing onto the edges of wealth and comfort. How likely is it that they will be willing to take the sort of economically-restrictive measures necessary to bring about a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions?
China's emissions have been increasing more than 10% a year. India's are set to increase three-fold over the next twenty years. The United States and Europe could engage in some sort of environmentally-friendly mass suicide and it we would still not have a net decrease over the medium term without the cooperation of China and India.
We must return to the concept of the prisoner's dilemma. Once again, if we assume for the sake of argument that the advocates of AGW are 100% right on the science, we must also conclude that they are 100% wrong on the policy. Using the terms of the game, the Chinese and others have an overwhelming incentive to betray -- that is, not to cooperate in any sort of international effort to reduce carbon. Choosing in such a situation to attempt to cooperate with someone with zero intention to cooperate and strong incentives against doing so crosses the line into active insanity. It may reward its self-righteous proponents with a little moral frisson, but it would be incredibly destructive for the rest of us.
We would do well to remember that, for all of the apocalyptic rhetoric, the consequences of even the most extreme forms of Climate Change would be manageable in the West. The world isn't going to catch on fire and we're not going to grow gills and spend our lives fighting pirates. In the worst case scenario in North America we may find that growing patterns shift (not always, I will add, to our detriment), that we have to deal with some new diseases and pests that were not present before, and that some already-vulnerable coastal areas become less-viable. Even in the darkest scenario none of these things will happen overnight -- they'll occur gradually over a span of decades.
If we, in view of the likely decisions of others, elect to "betray" -- that is to not attempt any sort of generalized strategy for the reduction of carbon, then we will be making the best decision that we can make with the information available to us at the present time. Instead of throwing trillions of dollars down green sinkholes, we can use the time and money we have to improve our economy and our technology in an organic fashion -- creating the breathing room and the sort of open and flexible society that can respond to the challenge that Climate Change might represent. The alternative is a world where our measures will have doubtlessly proven insufficient to arrest any human-triggered change in the climate but where we will lack the wealth and resources to respond effectively to such changes as may occur.