LLR Pages

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

George Phillies: Sensible Answers to Tough Questions, Part 2

LP Presidential Candidate George Phillies unveiled the second and last part of his "Sensible Answers to Tough Questions" series, in which he contrasts his positions and disagrees with Mary Ruwart at the same time.

Global warming is now widely accepted as a fact within the scientific community. What is not yet accepted is the extent to which the planet will warm and the impact that it will have. What will Libertarians do about this issue?

Ruwart: When our weather reporter’s can’t get tomorrow’s temperature right, it’s difficult to believe that global warming can be predicted, isn’t it? (This sentence should be told lightly, as a joke, to elicit agreement.)

As you mentioned, we really don’t know what the effect of global warming might be. High temperatures and CO2 stimulate crop and other plant growth, so global warming could actually be good for us. Any action we take has to be based on the facts, and we just don’t have those yet.

In a libertarian society, if a chemical such as CFC caused a problem, victims could sue the manufacturer for damages. The high cost of restitution would be passed on to CFC consumers, driving up the price. People would turn to cheaper alternatives and CFC production would be automatically curtailed.

People could sue before actual harm was done, so long as they could convince a judge or jury that CFCs actually posed a threat.

Phillies: Research on climate and climate change represents an enormous effort by thousands of people. Vast computer facilities exist primarily to study climate change. Billions of dollars are spent to deploy specialized earth satellites and other scientific instruments to study our atmosphere. Polar expeditions set forth, at significant risk to the lives of participants, to examine arctic ice conditions.

What about the question “When our weather reporter’s can’t get tomorrow’s temperature right, it’s difficult to believe that global warming can be predicted, isn’t it?” For almost all academic scientists, the reward of scientific research is almost entirely the personal satisfaction of untangling a scientific puzzle. If there were no hope of predicting climate accurately, wouldn’t real scientists have noticed, and transferred their work elsewhere?

The answer, of course, is that it is actually almost infinitely easier to predict climate than it is to predict the weather. Why?

It’s actually very simple. To predict climate, you only need to predict odds accurately, and it’s much easier to predict odds than to predict results. If I roll a quality Las Vegas die, the odds are very exactly one in six that I will roll a “two”. If I roll that die 600 times, I will roll 'two' a hundred or so times. If you try to predict whether you will roll a 'two' on your very next roll, well, that’s a lot harder, isn’t it? For the same reason, predicting climate is a lot easier than predicting weather.

In dealing with pollution, litigation can make sense if there is a single source that does a lot of damage to specifically identifiable people. If the local power company decides to save money on disposing of clinker ash by dumping ten tons of it on my front lawn, the responsible party is identifiable, the repair costs are identifiable, and the responsible party’s pockets are deep enough to support litigation.

In the global warming case, the responsible parties are everyone mining or using any fossil fuel or any process that vents methane into the air, the persons damaged include almost everyone, and the cost of assessing responsibility is astronomical. You have around the world several billion damaged parties, each with different facts of their cases requiring separate adjudication, against a similar number of differenced defendants. That’s trillions or potential lawsuits.

Where do you find the lawyers? Furthermore, for most of the injured parties, money is not the issue. They don’t want money, they want an ozone layer. For this sort of diffuse case, the litigation-restitution approach is completely unworkable.

How do we deal with global pollution? (page 30)

Ruwart: Thankfully, most pollution does more local than international damage, thereby discouraging polluters. For example, governments try to prevent Chernobyl-type accidents because their local population is put at greater risk than the international community. The country that polluted the oceans enough to cause global damage, for example, would destroy its own fishing first. The country that polluted its own air enough to disturb other nations would asphyxiate its own population in the process. Thus, global pollution is a highly unlikely event.

Phillies: While our understanding of atmospheric chemistry and its effects on meteorology has advanced considerably in the last decade, it remains clear that individual countries have created and are creating global atmospheric pollution.

A simple example of global atmospheric pollution is supplied by the chlorofluorocarbons, substances that are nearly inert and harmless on the ground. These safe, harmless materials were once manufactured all around the world. When transported to the stratosphere and brought in contact with stratospheric ice crystals, these substances had a catastrophic effect on the ozone layer near the poles. The effect is only now coming under control, as a result of rigorous planet-wide treaty restrictions on CFC production.

Similarly, there is massive evidence that the current global changes in climate are being driven in considerable part by man-made releases of carbon dioxide and methane. The huge increases in energy consumption in China, India, and Russia lead to matching increases in production of carbon dioxide. Fortunately, there is appreciable evidence that natural law will do what legislative law has not, namely the supplies of oil and coal will be exhausted before atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches levels vastly higher than those now encountered.

In the atmosphere, levels of carbon dioxide and methane are essentially never harmful to local populations. However, rising ocean levels are causing property protection questions along the coast. An increase of a foot or two in sea level is really bad if your home started a foot or two above sea level.