In recent years, climate change has emerged as one of the most high-profile issues facing policy-makers around the world. Environmental activists frequently warn that there will be dire consequences if governments fail to do enough to combat climate change by mandating dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. While the activists are correct in arguing that doing too little to combat climate change would be undesirable, there also exists a danger that policy-makers will do too much. The policies advocated by environmental activists are extremely ambitious and entail enormous costs that should be recognized and carefully considered before such policies are adopted. This paper argues in favour of a cost-benefit analysis approach to environmental policymaking, and it identifies obstacles to the development of this type of rational process for policy development in the years ahead.
In particular, the paper details numerous explicit expressions of hostility to a cost-benefit approach from prominent proponents of dramatic carbon-reduction policies. This hostility to cost-benefit analysis represents a major obstacle to the development of sound public policy. This paper then discusses the reasons for this hostility. Specifically, the author examines the speeches and writings of prominent climate change activists, showing that many view climate change as not merely an environmental problem to be solved but as a political opportunity to be exploited. By examining the philosophical assumptions that underlie the rhetoric and policy proposals of certain environmental activists, this paper shows that many environmentalists view climate change as a valuable opportunity to transform Western civilization in ways they would approve of even if global warming were not occurring. These activists think that through policies that are ostensibly designed to address global warming they can accomplish a range of other objectives such as reducing global inequality of wealth, creating a more harmonious international order, strengthening the ties of community in industrial countries and even restoring meaning and purpose to modern life. For example:
Timmons Roberts and Bradley Parks state that aggressive carbon reduction strategies in rich countries should be used to: “signal a desire to reverse long-standing patterns of global inequality.”
Bill McKibben: “We know that those [carbon] reductions will play out close to home, changing the shape of everyday life. Changing it for the better, as we learn once more to rely on those around us.”
Doyle Canning: “Building an ecology movement is embedding the necessity of a systemic response to the systemic breakdown of the planet, in the necessity of synergizing the global movements for peace, global justice, freedom, and direct democracy.”
Al Gore: “It [global warming] is the most dangerous challenge we’ve ever faced, but it is also the greatest opportunity we have had to make changes.”
Van Jones (Former Advisor to Barack Obama): “This movement is deeper than a solar panel. Don’t stop there. No, we’re going to change the whole system. We’re going to change the whole thing. We’re not going to put a new battery in a broken system. We want a new system.”
Since many activists such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Doyle Canning and Timmons Roberts think the more dramatic policies they propose will contribute to a transformation of civilization for the better in a number of different ways, they are likely to oppose proposals that are more modest, even if they seem more reasonable on the basis of simple cost-benefit analyses.
Al Gore explicitly describes climate change as the “greatest opportunity we have had to make changes.” This paper shows that Gore and others hope to achieve a wide range of goals—not just reducing global temperatures—through their preferred carbon-reduction policies. It is therefore unsurprising that they are extremely hostile to the suggestion that easier, cheaper policies may be more prudent and that they oppose a cost-benefit approach to policy analysis that fails to capture many of the benefits they hope to achieve through drastic GHG reduction efforts.
View entire study as PDF (32 Pages)