Friday, June 22, 2007

Jim Manzi on Global Warming

Jim Manzi's article for the National Review is one of the most intelligent descriptions I've seen of a plausible conservative response to global warming. The National Review isn't readily available in the United Kingdom but if you are at university or otherwise have access to LexisNexis it is available over that service. The article was in the issue of June 25 and is titled "Game Plan - What conservatives should do about global warming".

The first thing Jim Manzi does is correctly identify the stage of the argument that it is most productive for conservatives to address: what we do about global warming rather than whether it exists.

This is clearly the right position to take. There is room for doubt over global warming and the question of how much warming there will be remains deeply uncertain. However, the political debate has moved on and most non-scientists more interested in the political debate can engage far more effectively on the question of what to do about global warming, a question rooted in politics and economics, than they can in the scientific debate. There are exceptions, Tim Worstall's questions about the economic assumptions used by the IPCC spring to mind, but in general prioritising the "what next" debate over the "what's happening" debate is a good idea.

If we accept that the following proposition is probably true but there is scientific uncertainty then we can have the argument about what to do next properly: There is some warming, a significant proportion of that warming is caused by humans, there is a tiny possibility that something catastrophic will happen.

We do need to make it clear that this threat is not worth wrecking the global economy over. The chances of a catastrophic change are very low and a Precautionary Principle based approach cannot function in a world with a variety of catastrophic possibilities, from asteroids to nuclear war. We could spend every resource we have chasing our own demons. The challenge is to form policy which will enable us to respond to global warming in a cost effective and proportionate manner. Keeping wealthy isn't just a good thing in itself but also makes adapting to climate change far easier, as Manzi says "wealth and technology are raw materials for options".

He next argues for efforts to improve our ability to predict the climate. This is a rather uncontroversial idea but Manzi's notion of focussing the effort on getting more data and, in particular, some kind of system to get warning of an impending catastrophic event is distinctive. A similar idea is the proposed tsunami warning system that might have given important notice of the storm headed for South East Asia.

He argues for putting technology at the centre of any efforts to curb fossil fuel use. I worry that sometimes when people hear conservatives arguing for technological solutions they think we're trying to avoid taking climate change seriously. The reality is that at the moment there are too few good substitutes for fossil fuels. What this means is that any taxes will fail to achieve environmental objectives as the elasticities in demand for fossil fuels are, in most cases, way too low. This makes green taxes one more revenue raising tax that hurts industry and commerce. Conservatives are rightly sceptical of taxes that will do more to send emitting industries abroad than actually cut the amount of carbon dioxide emitted. Manzi's approach to creating incentives for technological development is the use of prizes. Branson's $25 million prize for the development of a 'carbon scrubber' is taken as a template. This approach has the advantage of getting the private sector involved and being remarkably cheap compared to other emissions curbing policies under consideration. The idea of keeping the prizes small enough that the incentives for interest groups to politically manipulate the system aren't too strong is a good one.

As Manzi says, "adaptation should take center stage". His recommendations for this are pretty thin. I set out a programme for an adaptive response to climate change in an article for ConservativeHome, "A Sceptics' Response to Climate Change".

The final section of the article sets out, essentially, why conservatives should have hope that they can defeat eco-socialist demands for radical changes to the economic order. He describes a bid-ask spread: $225 per month to implement Kyoto (which still doesn't come close to solving global warming) against $21 that the median US family would be willing to pay to "solve global warming".

Some time ago I set out, in a post on the politics of climate change, just why the Right has been losing the debate over climate change. We relied too much upon arguing either that there was scientific uncertainty, which could not be sustained by a scientific minority, or that the measures proposed were likely to be ineffective. As the costs of taking action to curb emissions had not yet hit home for people the response was simply that we "had to do something".

Now that people are starting to see the costs they're going to be asked to pay they are going to hold green policies to far higher standards of efficacy. The time is ripe for conservatives to be making the case against eco-socialism, particularly if we can offer alternative policies of the sort the Manzi and others are proposing.

Update: The man himself provides a link to a copy of the article. Well worth reading.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your incredibly kind words.

A PDF of the article is available here:

Best regards,
Jim Manzi

Calvin Jones said...

That links was a great help!

I have taken the article and annotated it with comments. I also provide more scientific background and run down various 'skeptic' positions.


Cyberhillbilly said...

Just came across this after blogging about Geraghty's post today giving you kudos for this position on climate change.

Haven't had a chance to completely digest your suggestions, but I think you're on the right path.

If conservatives want to win elections the last thing they need to do is deny that climate change is happening at all.

I live in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern KY and am very worried about the coming climate change laws. We have to find ways to burn coal while emitting less CO2 or coal production will eventually suffer.

Thanks for your post.

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unknown said...

Yes, Jim Manzi, one of the most effective, data-driven critics of cap and trade is described thus on Mark Levin's Facebook page and all Levin's fans congratulate him for smacking down a "liberal" and an "eco-Marxist"!

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