An Arm And A Leg

Worth A Look, Climate, Frontier Centre

Let’s say that a bunch of tribal chiefs, having realized that they are in danger of being exposed as useless parasites, consult with their witch doctors and announce that the Gods are angry. These vengeful Gods are demanding that every tribesman (except chiefs and witch doctors) must have either an arm or a leg amputated. Being eager to be seen as good chiefs, they agree to consult with the tribesmen. Not about the anger of the Gods, of course. That’s settled. Instead, debate is to be allowed on the relative merits and defects of being one-armed vs. one-legged. Should individuals be allowed to choose which limb to lose? How much of a limb should be sufficient for divine appeasement? Below the knee? Above the elbow? Some bright spin/witch doctor might even suggest that this mass amputation would represent a marvellous opportunity to stimulate economic growth via the development of a prosthetic limb industry. Once the benefits of this new industry were taken into account, the Gods’ anger might prove a net benefit, a golden opportunity.

But then suppose some emperor’s-new-clothes kind of individual comes along and says, “Hang on, what proof do we have the Gods are angry? And where are these Gods anyway?” You might be sure that if they couldn’t rip his heart out straight away, the powers that be would engage in much agitated jumping and hooting. “Infidel,” they would scream. There would be dark whispers that this person must be in league with, or in the pay of, the Devil, X’on. How dare he doubt the shamans, among whom there is consensus.

Just substitute “catastrophic climate change” for “angry gods,” carbon taxes vs. cap-and-trade for amputating arms vs. amputating legs, and “Denier” for “Infidel,” and you pretty much have the substance of the present climate change policy debate.

We are being asked to countenance destructive but pointless alternatives in the name of quasi-mystical beliefs pushed by authorities seeking primarily to bolster their own flagging power and status.

The radical environmentalists/shamans who are pushing this policy debacle positively welcome such announcements as this week’s closure of GM’s Oshawa truck plant. David Suzuki, as part of the Post’s series on carbon taxes, suggested that the GM closure was the price of failing to adopt suitable climate change policies. But people are abandoning truck purchases because of expensive gas, which has nothing to do with climate change. Meanwhile, politicians — indicating the Alice in Wonderland nature of the debate — are suggesting that they might use carbon taxes to reduce fuel prices. Let me cut your arm off and immediately sew it back on. There you are: good as new.

The overarching nonsense is the twin claim that the science of climate change is settled, and that it represents the greatest crisis facing the planet. As last week’s Copenhagen Consensus, the wonkish exercise convened by leading skeptic Bjorn Lomborg, noted, draconian action on man-made climate change, even if it is a reality, comes well down the list of sensible priorities for achieving a “better world” (dangerous notion though that may be).

Even more nonsensical is the assertion that economic self-mutilation might be good for us. Yet another canard is that a carbon tax is preferable because it’s “more stable.” As my colleague Terence Corcoran has suggested in this space, a carbon tax provides no certainty for the simple reason that nobody knows, or can know, what the “right” level of taxation should be. In fact, there are only wrong levels of carbon taxes, since they are taxes on industrial activity, and thus inevitable destroyers of growth, jobs and trade. Most important, they cannot be set at any level that would actually achieve a drastic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions without decimating economies.

We are meant, however, to be distracted from this fact by claims that such taxes could be “revenue neutral,” that is, governments would reduce taxes elsewhere by a similar amount. This is analogous to chopping off a leg and offering the victim a prosthetic arm. Limb neutral! In fact, anybody who imagines that the tax would not stick to governments’ hands, or be hosed away subsidizing dead-end, drunk-under-the-lamppost technologies, is no student either of human nature, politics or history. Or else he or she is a power-deluded politician.

Again, when it comes to certainty, a carbon tax at any level, or any fixed level of escalation, creates anything but certainty since it carries us into a world of escalating anti-economic warfare. Amputating our own economic limbs means that we must be certain that others amputate their limbs, too. Otherwise we must punish them with “excess limb tariffs” to level the playing field. This could soon deteriorate into all-out trade war, and/or sink beneath the deadweight of bureaucratic edict. Then we would be facing a potential “carbon depression,” which wouldn’t leave investment looking so certain at all.

Cap-and-trade is equally ridiculous, a parody of a market that would merely ensure an enormous expansion in corrupt and/or incompetent bureaucracy. It would also cause similar economic devastation if caps were set at levels that were to achieve the allegedly required drastic greenhouse gas reductions.

Mr. Suzuki suggested that a massive “Green Wave” is headed our way. His analogy is perhaps more revealing than he intends. We are indeed facing a tsunami of needless policy destruction. Fortunately, people are finally beginning to appreciate what this charade will cost them: an arm and a leg.