Speaker Boehner Is Right: Fight Climate Change Policy, Not the Science

John Boehner says he’s “not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” then goes on to slam President Obama’s plan to deal with it. Naturally, this elicits a lot of hostility on the part of liberal environmental activists and their blogging component, but it actually makes a lot more sense than most realize.

One must separate climate change from public policy. This may seem impossible to some diehard global warming alarmists, but it is the correct path. See Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine’s chief science correspondent. Although a staunch libertarian and opponent of big government schemes to fix things, Bailey renounced his climate change skepticism in 2005 and elaborated on it in 2006. How can these two positions be reconciled?

Before I get to Bailey’s preferred solutions, I need to point out that this is the right angle for people – especially politicians – to deal with climate change. Honestly, trying to fight the data is a losing proposition for most. We’re talking about a complicated area of science, and aside from climatologists, physicists, and other such scientists, trying to argue the data here is just a waste of time. People do not have the specialist background and training to even begin to understand the intricate details and studies, leaving them open to all sorts of pitfalls. We can criticize how it is conducted – from the “cleansing” of skeptic Lennart Bengtsson from the Global Warming Policy Foundation advisory board, to the methodology surrounding the “hockey stick” and the whitewashing of Climategate, to the fact that it relies far more on models than on actual empirical data – but beyond that, one is stepping onto shaky ground. Why do battle in unfavorable terrain? Better to conduct debate on a firmer footing.

That firmer footing is public policy. We can quickly see problems with most proposals, which frequently involve higher taxes, heavier regulation, and above all a greater place for the government to interfere with our lives. These analyses require less of climatology than they do of economics (particularly public choice) and political science.

Bailey looks at environmental problems and sees that most of them are some form of the tragedy of the commons; the response to that is to privatize. He notes that cap and trade, while technically falling under this umbrella, would put up tremendous barriers to entry for new businesses and effectively lead to more corporatism and government-business collusion. Other suggestions include a carbon tax (so long as it replaced income or payroll taxes), relying on and driving technological development to find solutions, or just looking at the problem differently: how much should we sacrifice today to ensure our grandchildren have a slightly smaller (1-2%) growth in their wealth? Put that way, climate change doesn’t seem so big at all.

There are many different solutions out there, and a growing number of free market institutions looking at environmental issues. For a long time, the center for free market environmentalism was the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana, but now there are also the R Street Institute (where I occasionally write) and the Energy and Enterprise Initiative. The Heritage Foundation, in the past couple of years, has also expanded their environmental work.

It doesn’t require anyone to get into the weeds on climate science. It requires asking powerful questions: how much are we willing to sacrifice for the environment? How many jobs, how much of our income, of our technological base? How much of our liberty – just to choose what lightbulbs we use, what washing machines we can have, how much and what we can drive, how long we can leave the lights on – do we want to surrender to an even more bloated government that is driven by special interest politics and not our best interests at heart? How far are we willing to go to impose government force on others who do not share these concerns and wish to take another path?

These are not questions that can be answered by pointing to a model of temperatures over the past century. These are questions that can only be answered by philosophy, ethics, and economics. These are questions that can be answered by going back to the founding principles of our nation and the Hayekian principles that form the backbone of market economies.

Speaker Boehner will no doubt be attacked for what may appear to be a contradictory position, but on the contrary, he should be commended for demonstrating intellectual humility while simultaneously keeping up the fight against an expansion of an already huge managerial-regulatory state. There is absolutely no need to deny climate change in order to make the case for limited government, and conservatives will open themselves up to unnecessary attacks if they do so. Just focus on the economics and the political principles that are the foundation of our nation, and we shall do fine.

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