Global Warming and Its Dangers

Article excerpt

We admit at the outset that we know little about the science of global warming. How much, if at all, the earth is warming; whether any warming is a trend or the result of random variations in global weather patterns; and, if a warming trend does exist, how much of it is owing to human activity are questions we cannot answer. Perhaps this ignorance protects us against anxiety attacks when we hear frightening accounts of what lies in store for planet earth and its inhabitants if governments do not immediately take bold and decisive control of the global climate. Our serenity, however, more likely arises from our exposure to public-choice analysis, which convinces us that concern about global warming is being inflamed and inflated as an open-ended rationale for expanding government control over the economy even further. This conviction does not leave us entirely sanguine, however, because we believe a serious danger of this rush to regulate is going largely unnoticed--a danger that might make any actual global warming a far greater problem than it should be.

First, the Bad News

People are easily frightened, and when they are, governments grow. Fear and crises go hand in hand, and the evidence that government thrives in crises, real or imagined, is overwhelming (Higgs 1987). Claims of impending environmental crisis have proved especially effective in helping to justify an expanded role for government over the past thirty-five years. Widespread famine, acid rain, resource depletion, global cooling (yes, that's right--a big concern in the 1970s), lack of landfills, Alar-laced apples, the spotted owl's possible extinction, and urban sprawl are but a few of the alleged crises used in recent years to justify more reliance on government coercion and less reliance on market incentives. In every case, these alleged crises have proved innocuous or greatly exaggerated and, even when real, have commonly resulted from existing government restrictions on private action. Of course, the government programs put in place to deal with these concerns tend to remain in place, largely hidden from public view, long after public attention has been diverted to a new threat described in even more frightening terms and demanding yet more government programs.

Not surprisingly, the latest episode in this escalating series of crises, global warming, is being described in apocalyptic terms. For example,

in World on Fire: Saving an Endangered Earth, former Senate leader George Mitchell informs us that global warming, if left unchecked, "would trigger meteorological chaos--raging hurricanes ... capable of killing millions of people; ... record-breaking heat waves; and profound drought that could drive Africa and the entire Indian subcontinent over the edge into mass starvation.... Unchecked, [global warming] would match nuclear war in its potential for devastation" (qtd. in Moore 1995, 83). (1) If this dire prediction is not frightening enough for you, search the combination of key words global warming and catastrophic on, and you will find comments that make Mitchell's account appear sanguine.

We do not want to leave the impression that the global-warming hawks bear only bad news. They invariably soften the threat of doom with the good news that because global warming results from human activity (they ignore what seems to be a warming trend on Mars), we can reverse its destructive effects by changing our behavior. Furthermore, we fortunately have "experts" who know what changes should be made, so our salvation requires only that we give these experts the necessary power and money. This reassuring news does raise a slight problem, however: the experts recommend changes that require government either directly or indirectly to impose controls over almost every aspect of our lives. Greenhouse gas emissions, understood as causes of global warming, now are being defined as pollutants that must be reduced significantly below current levels (as required, at least for developed nations, by the Kyoto Protocol). …