Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A different approach to global warming

Now there are three approaches you can take to the notion of human induced global warming:
1. Accept the evidence of those who think there is insufficient evidence;
2. Acknowledge it could be happening or may not be, but taking a precautionary approach to responding to it (government removes interventions that encourage more energy use, while enhancing freedom and prosperity, while people can choose to do whatever they wish);
3. Proclaim it is happening, we are all doomed and the government must intervene on a scale and in a manner akin to a war footing (the Green Party approach).
In all cases it is wise to reappraise your response according to evidence as it accumulates.
There are risks in each approach. The risk in the first approach is that it IS happening and has serious negative effects, and it becomes more costly to respond in the longer term. Presumably the more evidence appears of this, the less appropriate it is to take this stance.
The risk in the third approach is that you throw away your standard of living, and risk people’s health and lives by wasting money on measures that have little effect. Indeed, as long as there is little response from countries such as China, India and the USA, then the efforts of smaller countries are effectively to impose costs with little return. Another enormous risk is that the benefits of “taking steps” to address climate change may be outweighed by the costs. Bjorn Lomborg best described it in his book “The Skeptical Environmentalist”, which is slammed by many ecologists, when he explained that net human welfare could be improved far more significantly by paying for all people to have access to clean drinking water, than by responding to climate change. Of course this involves economics – the study of tradeoffs, and many ecologists have a parsimonious understanding of economics at best.
So I take the second approach. I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence to justify a worldwide panic, but most importantly the policy agenda for responding to it has been hijacked by a left wing statist approach that carries all the risks of the third approach. Certainly some in the left and the ecologist movement see global warming as manna from heaven, because it is a convenient justification for widescale government intervention and for the religion of ecologists to be followed against the deadly sins of energy and transport. The hatred of some ecologists towards the private car is well known and quite visceral. However, there is plenty that can be done that would reduce “greenhouse gas emissions” while increasing personal freedom and not having a negative long term effect on the economy. Here are some:
- Cease any subsidies for energy production, consumption or exploration for energy resources;
- Privatise all energy producers (Solid Energy, 3 power generators/retailers and Transpower) so they are all profit maximising, which means they will more relentlessly pursue efficiency and charging what users can bear. This may mean some prices drop and others increase. Meanwhile a core of consumers are likely to pay a premium for renewable energy, let the market respond to that demand;
- Commercialise and privatise all highways and major roads, allowing the new owners to toll them and particularly charge a premium at congested times. Even the crude London congestion charging scheme reduced CO2 emissions by 16%, while also reducing congestion and improving overall air quality. Profit maximising road companies would price congestion off the roads, making all traffic flow more freely and efficiently. It would also improve the viability of public transport and even railways and sea freight;
- End subsidies to public transport and all other transport modes. Once roads are commercially priced then public transport can stand on its own merits and will cost more. This means people will walk and cycle more, and are more likely to shop, work and live closer together, WITHOUT new urbanist central planning. At the moment governments subsidise transport in many different ways, ending this would be painful, but might make a huge difference;
- End welfare payments for having children. Forget the car or a flight to London, having kids is the single most carbon intensive thing you can ever do. The state should have nothing to do with encouraging this, it is time to abolish Working for Families, tax credits for families and declare an end to claiming for additional children on welfare, and start phasing out the DPB;
- Privatise all refuse collection. Councils already subsidise this in some cases (not others). If everyone had to pay for rubbish collection it may mean you think more about what you accumulate. The problem of “fly tippers” (as they are called in the UK) is a matter of law enforcement, privately owned highway owners wont tolerate it and it is a gross example of pollution that the state seems unconcerned about, because it isn’t as sexy as “carbon footprints”.
There will be more examples, but essentially it is about the state no longer giving preference to measures that are energy intensive, while reducing its role and the distortions it imposes on individual choice. However, I can’t see the Greens buying it, because they worship public transport, and can’t stand the idea that, fundamentally, all people might pay for what they use. On top of that, there is nothing to stop people taking their own steps, wise or foolish though they may be. However it should be evidence based, not the faith based initiative it currently is.

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