The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Confessions of a Former Climate Skeptic

Jerry Taylor on why he now considers climate change a serious problem.


Jerry Taylor used to be one of the foremost libertarian critics of regulatory efforts to forestall climate change. No longer. Now, as head of the Niskanen Center, he advocates for a carbon tax and urges center-right folks to take climate change more seriously.

What caused the conversion? Writing in the Bulwark, Taylor explains why one does not have to be a climate alarmist to think that climate change is a serious problem that merits a serious policy response. Writes Taylor:

The big debate in climate science right now isn't whether or not climate change is occurring—or whether human activity is the main cause. The big debate is about scale: How much change will there be, over how long a time frame, and how large (or small) will be the follow-on effects.

As a consequence, we have to think about climate change as a risk-management problem, and take seriously that our "best guess" about prospective climate changes might be wrong, and account for potential downside risks, including the possibility that some risks are greater than others. This leads Taylor to the following conclusion:

If we think about climate risks in the same fashion we think about risks in other contexts, we should most certainly hedge—and hedge aggressively—by removing fossil fuels from the economy as quickly as possible. . . .

As Taylor explains, this is a consequence of taking risk and uncertainty seriously, and need not be based upon the assumption that particularly apocalyptic scenarios are certain or even likely. Cost-effective mitigation measures make sense insofar as they provide protection against downside risks. This approach doesn't justify every potential climate policy proposal, but it is more than sufficient to overcome the "do nothing" approach favored by most Republican officeholders and conservative policy mavens.

For my part (as a fellow recovered climate policy skeptic) I have also argued that a principled commitment to property rights further counsels in favor of taking climate change seriously—again without any need to embrace apocalyptic visions of a hothouse cataclysm. While there may be good arguments against many of the policy proposals forwarded in DC, including the ill-fated Waxman-Markey climate bill and the Clean Power Plan—the alternative to these policies should not be doing nothing at all.