Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Is “Climate Denialism” even a problem?

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In light of the recent Paris climate change summit, a number of representatives of the political class have set their sights upon what they deem “climate denialism.” The term is frequently used as a pejorative to dismiss persons who are skeptical of the many proposed political responses to global warming, but in its most narrow sense it refers to persons who doubt the current scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and that it is induced by human activity.

“Deniers” are said to be using anti-scientific arguments to thwart climate change action. Some of the more extreme elements of the climate activist community have gone so far as to call on the federal government to use the anti-racketeering RICO statutes to prosecute “climate deniers.” The most notable example consisted of a letter drafted by GMU climate professor Jagadish Shukla in collusion with the staff of another RICO proponent, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

These and other similar attempts to persecute or even prosecute “climate deniers” are invariably predicated upon a claim that denial is doing some form of harm – harm to the planet, harm to scientific debate, and harm to policy agendas – by fostering public ignorance. That claim warrants closer evaluation, as it implicates “climate deniers” in a litany of potentially serious charges. I’ll venture a potentially controversial suggestion though – even if we accept the scientific validity of the current consensus on anthropogenic global warming, we should not be concerned about the prevalence of “climate deniers” in the slightest. There is no evidence that they cause any material harm to the present climate debate when considered in light of a few complicating propositions.

As a framework for a quick thought experiment, let’s also assume the following propositions are true:

  1. Most proposed policies to address climate change are ineffectual at actually addressing climate change.
  2. Most proposed policies to address climate change are extremely harmful to human well being in other ways and extremely costly to implement.
  3. Most proposed policies to address climate change have proven unusually susceptible to political corruption, rent seeking, cronyism, & other known social ills.

Note that these are not unreasonable assumptions. In fact a strong case exists for the validity of all three propositions. Most climate change policy proposals on the table (increased regulation, carbon trading schemes, carbon taxes etc) would have a negligible effect on current temperature trends, falling far short of reversing them and likely amounting to little more than the equivalent of pouring a teaspoon of salt into an ocean and claiming to have altered the salinity. Those same policies would be extremely costly to implement with a potential price tag in the trillions of dollars through economic losses, taxes and fees, regulatory compliance, and from a general decline in human well-being as reliable technologies are curtailed and prohibited for environmentalist reasons. Finally, most climate change policies have the simultaneous effect of enriching deep-pocketed corporate and political interests in competitor industries. As oil, gas, and coal prices are artificially pushed upward by carbon taxes and regulations, profits are reaped by the heavily-subsidized solar, wind, electric car, biofuel and other “green” energy industry interests that often lobby for the very same taxes and regulations on their fossil fuel competitors.

So let’s take them as a given and proceed to the thought experiment. In a world where climate change policies are ineffectual, costly and harmful to implement, and highly susceptible to corruption, which of the following scenarios is preferable?

A. The majority of the population correctly understands the climate science consensus, concludes that it is a problem, and unwisely demands corrective political action, even though we know with certainty that the resulting policies will be ineffectual, harmful, costly, and corrupt.

B. The majority of the population incorrectly thinks that climate change is a myth and refuses to believe the scientific consensus. In other words, they become pawns of the dreaded “deniers.” Owing to this ignorance, the same population now has no inclination to pursue policies that are ineffectual, harmful, costly, and corrupt.

When assessed in terms of their respective harmful effects, it is difficult to deny that Scenario B yields the preferable outcome even if it is the more scientifically (though not politically) ignorant of the two options.


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