Drug Dealers and Global Warming – Parallel Parables?

Commentary, Climate, Peter Holle

Aside from a glorious spot of hot weather in early August, this summer was not particularly warm. Even so, the theory of anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming continues to dominate the policy landscape.

Most of us cannot establish a fully informed opinion on global warming. We cannot review the vast amounts of data or the complex methodologies used to assemble the information. Since almost everybody has to trust someone else to interpret the science, consider the following parable, which nicely illustrates the issue.

Some drug buyers caught a dealer who had crossed them. Through a language translator, they offered to spare his life in return for the location of their money. The captive told the translator where it was, but the translator told the buyers he would rather die. Bang.

The translator had the wrong incentive. She stood to gain a small fortune by deceiving her clients and keeping the truth to herself. Similarly, most of us have to rely on translators for global warming information, so we must hope they have the right incentives.

The global warming debate centers on whether or not our industrialized society releases enough carbon dioxide to alter our climate catastrophically. The United Nations, through its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); many heads of scientific organizations; environmental lobby groups such as Greenpeace; and certain politicians all claim the science of global warming is settled, and the only question remaining is how to reduce carbon emissions. On the other side is a group of scientists who argue that current climate variations are smaller than we think, and solar activity and measurement problems explain these changes.

Celebrity ex-vice president Al Gore and the warming coalition suggest all research supporting human-caused warming comes from noble scientific inquiry and anybody who proposes alternative theories is funded and motivated by the usual whipping boys of old-style environmentalism – big corporations. This is one of their most subtle and powerful arguments: “Even if you do not get the science, whom would you rather trust?”

At first glance, the warming coalition’s contention that they are fighting a David and Goliath battle stands up. Some corporations make pots of money selling carbon-emitting products. However, consider the subtle theme in the drug dealer parable that is relevant to the global warming debate.

Even though the buyers had the guns, the translator had the knowledge. When her incentive was different from theirs, she deceived them. We must therefore carefully monitor the incentives of the translators most of us rely upon for scientific information in this debate.

If it turns out human-caused global warming is not a significant problem, we can continue living our comfortable industrialized lifestyles without worry, and in the developing world, industrialization can continue to lift millions out of poverty.

However, the idea that our carbon emissions are destroying the planet is beneficial to anyone involved in this particular science. As long as we think we face a choice between our industrialized way of life and saving the planet, global warming is a big research topic, a big lobbying issue, a big political opportunity and a big media story.

If conservative estimates of the dollar amounts of U.S. government research grants are correct, climate change is a $2-billion a year industry. If, as many contend, we are experiencing natural warming with minimal impact, more research is unnecessary.

Organizations such as Greenpeace and the Worldwatch Institute are in the business of addressing concerns about environmental issues. If there are no concerns, there is no business. If the human-caused global warming hypothesis dies, these organizations will need to source donations from another crisis.

There are those who see global warming as part of a global political struggle. The infamous statement of former Canadian minister for the environment Christine Stewart sums it up: “No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits …. [C]limate change [provides] the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.” Older class-struggle and state ownership types have enthusiastically embraced the global warming debate. Controlling carbon emissions and energy use is a great central planning vehicle for achieving significant control over the economic life of the nation and the world. When the IPCC releases its “summaries for policy makers” six months before it releases the actual scientific reports they are based on, one has to wonder what is more important, the politics or the science.

The media is the final link in the information chain, and it needs great stories. Whichever way you swing it, human-caused global warming destroying the planet is a great story of crisis and conflict: We all face certain doom unless we mend our evil ways and dramatically change our lifestyles … but only while this global warming hypothesis stays alive.

There is no global warming conspiracy. But, there is a group of people, let us call them translators, who inform us about scientific issues we cannot understand first-hand. These translators have their own incentives, which mostly tend toward keeping the man-made global warming hypothesis alive. When the warming lobby warns of perverse incentives distorting the debate, they just might be right.

Meanwhile, enjoy the remaining warm days of summer.