The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Climate Debate Should Focus on How to Address the Threat of Climate Change, Not Whether Such a Threat Exists

Even non-apocalyptic assessments of existing climate science counsel in favor of taking climate change seriously


Like Ronald Bailey, I used to be skeptical that climate change posed a serious environmental threat and questioned the wisdom of policy responses. Climate change featured prominently in Bailey's Eco-Scam, and I edited a book and helped develop a policy program aimed at forestalling U.S. adoption of limits on greenhouse gases. And like Bailey, I no longer hold to that view, and I'm now willing to consider policy interventions I would once have rejected out of hand. (The Niskanen Center's Jerry Taylor has had a similar change of heart.)

As Bailey explains in his most recent Reason piece, the scientific evidence that climate change poses a serious problem continues to accumulate, as does the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While there is still substantial uncertainty as to the precise consequences of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, there is more reason to fear harmful effects, and seriously adverse scenarios cannot be ruled out. Like it or not, the science has continued to converge in support of the theory that human activity is contributing to a warming of the atmosphere.

Residual uncertainty about the precise timing and magnitude of future climate change is no justification for failing to act. To the contrary, we take action all the time to address uncertain or improbable threats. We invest in national defense not because we know of particular military threats that will manifest themselves at any given time, but to protect against such threats if they should materialize.

Similarly, we don't buy insurance or install smoke detectors in our homes because we know when disaster will strike. We take such measures because the chance and cost of a calamity are great enough to justify prudent steps to reduce the likelihood and magnitude that such risks will come to pass. Climate change is no different. The potential negative consequences of climate change are large enough and probable enough to justify significant action.

As with national defense, libertarians should remain vigilant as to the threat of government overreach, but this is not an argument to do nothing. The best national defense policy entails taking prudent steps to provide security, while eschewing government interventions that are themselves a particularly serious threat to individual liberty. Striking the right balance can be difficult, but it is what serious policy requires.

There is something comforting in the conceit that any particularly thorny policy problem is a mirage and not something to be take seriously. Alas, that is not the world we inhabit. Climate change is, in many respects, the product of modern industrial civilization, and addressing the threat of climate change is an awesome challenge—but it is a challenge that must be met.

Taking climate change seriously does not require embracing centralized government control of the energy economy or a "Green New Deal." It is fair to argue that neither the Paris Agreement nor the Clean Power Plan represented a serious approach to climate policy. But you can't beat something with nothing, and if those who believe in limited government wish to forestall excessive government interventions in the name of environmental protection, it's long past time they articulate and defend an alternative set of policies that can keep us both free and green.