An Exchange on Climate Change and a Tort-Based Response

The following exchange was prompted by my September 9 article, “Sketching a Free-Market Response to Climate Change.” John Clinch sent in some critical comments, which are reproduced here with my reply. —Ari Armstrong

Clinch: Climate Change is a Serious Problem Demanding a Multifaceted Approach


Thanks for your piece.

I too listened with interest to Sam Harris’s conversation with Joseph Romm. What struck me was not that it revealed anything new but that it stuck to the science. Climatology has developed into a highly sophisticated discipline and, in doing so, has alarmingly confirmed the predictions it’s been making about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) for thirty years.

While the canary has been chirping away in the coalmine, we’ve largely wasted those 30 precious years, mainly because of inertia and denialism by non-experts. In the face of the growing evidence, now we find the denialists—the Matt Ridleys and the Nigel Lawsons on this side of the Atlantic and much of government on the other—to be squirming, shifting positions from “it’s not happening” to “it’s not us” to, in some cases, “it’s us but it’s not that bad.” They will be forever catching up until it’s too late. It almost is.

A lot of that denialism has been fueled by ideology—principally, as you acknowledge, the suspicion by neo-liberals that it’s all just another anti-capitalist conspiracy. You are a self-confessed Johnny-come-lately on this (you’re not alone) yet, even now, you plead a 1960s popular science book, The Population Bomb, to hint that it’s sometimes okay for common-sense folk to scoff at the eggheads. I suppose it’s to your credit that you didn’t cite the supposed 1970s “global cooling hypothesis”—a great favourite of the denialists, since it suggests a false balance. These were not serious hypotheses supported by mountains of evidence, as the AGW hypothesis is (although the population book did at least remind the world of the Malthusian problem). Don’t confuse bad or inchoate science with the good.

My point is that now is not the time to seek ideologically-motivated answers in solving this. This is a global emergency that will occupy the concerns of the world community for decades. It must do or we fail and failure potentially spells an endgame for civilisation. The stakes couldn’t be higher, yet your contribution to the public debate has been to argue narrowly for a free market solution. You offer little to no evidence to support the view that your proposal would be any more effective that the one advocated by most people directly involved in this field, namely a carbon tax. A carbon tax harnesses free-market mechanisms and has the great virtue of simplicity and ease of administration. Why, other than for reasons of pure ideology, would you equate this (in order to dismiss it) with the extension of the bogeyman State?

The difference between us is that I don’t care what we do as long as it works. I’d do all of the following if it worked. Yes, establish your quasi-tort if it can be shown to be effective—why not? But also cooperate internationally to establish ever more stringent binding national targets for carbon reduction. Introduce a carbon tax (a complete no-brainer for me). On the technical side, of course invest in blue-sky technologies but, in the meantime, rapidly expand new nuclear energy and continue investment in renewables. For this, we can subsidise, if required, from carbon tax proceeds. (You dismiss investment subsidies yet these have been demonstrably effective at getting the renewables industry off the ground.)

If you don’t support almost anything that can be shown to assist us with this problem, my charge to you is that you don’t think that AGW is a serious enough problem.

Finally, to those people who are not climatologists but who advocate for the “mild and manageable” view, I say this. They may be right. However, I don’t know and neither do they. I am not entitled to my own opinion about the science behind AGW. Neither are you, President Trump, Republican senators, Lord Lawson, Exxon-Mobil, Friends of the Earth, or Greenpeace. All of those people or bodies are either denying the science, funding denialism, or are allowing ideology to hamper the science. It’s time for us all to listen to expertise because, as I say, the stakes could not be higher. The solution is scientific, not ideological.

Sorry for the length of my comment but it’s self-evidently the most important issue we face.

—John Clinch

Armstrong: A Tort-Best Response Would Be Best

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate that you grasp the essence of my position (ironically, some people closer to my political views have not grasped it) and that, unlike some environmental activists, you are open to realistic options such as nuclear energy. I am not persuaded by all of your remarks, however.

To start off, your claim that global warming could spell the “endgame for civilization” is hyperbole. What we seem realistically to be talking about is the potential for rising sea levels, more intense storms, desertification of some regions, and agricultural disruptions. As Romm says, the potential mass migrations could cause enormous political difficulty. These are no small problems, but they hardly threaten civilization as such. And there are several reasons to think that outcomes will probably be considerably less-bad than the worst predictions:

  • Assuming global warming continues as predicted over the coming decades, people will become ever more alarmed about it and ever more willing to curb emissions of carbon dioxide.
  • People are clever and adaptable. We build air conditioned dwellings, irrigation systems, agricultural greenhouses in which temperature and light can be carefully controlled, and so on. And our technologies keep improving.
  • New technologies may allow people to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reflect sufficient sunlight back into space to compensate, or the like.

As people such as Johan Norberg and Ronald Bailey point out, assuming continued economic growth (a good bet), people will be enormously wealthier by the turn of the century and therefore much better equipped to handle the challenge.

Some people might respond to warming by moving north. Vast regions of the planet are currently iced over for much of the year. Hardly anyone lives in such places. As examples, the United States has Alaska and Russia has Siberia (which may help explain why Russia does not seem very concerned about global warming). Canada is roughly the same size as the United States and yet has only around a tenth of the population. Our planet has loads of space that would become more habitable with substantial global warming—although of course this would come with dramatic political and ecological changes.

It is worth noting here that, although climate scientists are pretty much all on the same page regarding the basics of global warming, they still don’t know the details of what will happen. That is why climate models offer a range of predictions. You may have heard of the recent report claiming that the models may have overpredicted warming.

Regarding the “experts,” it is absolutely essential that people interpret the claims of experts with an engaged and critical mind. You grant the possibility of “bad or inchoate science”—yet a person can distinguish the bad from the good only through critical reasoning. Paul Ehrlich’s apocalyptical nonsense is hardly the only example of “eggheads” getting important things wrong; we can also look to the the once-widespread eugenics movement, the modern “replication crisis” in psychology and other fields, and even now-discredited dietary advice in the United States, as a few examples. There is not an absolute break between experts and the layperson in terms of knowledge; an expert whose views are supported by the facts should be able to convincingly make that case. Blind faith in “experts” can help to pave the road to totalitarianism.

Now to my proposed solution. As indicated, I offered only a sketch of my position. To present a fully formed version of it would require weeks or months of my full-time occupation (which would go uncompensated). I’d have to learn a lot more not only about climate change but about tort law and international law. I figured it was better to present a sketch than nothing.

That said, my position has a lot more going for it than you indicate.

I suggested some of the problems with a tax. At what rates should the tax be set? On what will the proceeds be spent? Obviously these would be deeply political issues guided by the whims of politicians and the influence of special interests. As a new source of revenues, a carbon tax would incentivize politicians to maximize the proceeds of the tax, not to minimize the harms of global warming. A tort-based compensation fund such as I describe would at least be tied, as a matter of principle, to actual damages.

You advocate subsidies, but there’s little reason to think that government bodies do a good job at picking winners. Political subsidies tend to favor the politically connected. Yes, subsidies are always “demonstrably effective” at helping those subsidized—but at what cost? If the full costs of carbon-based fuels were accounted for, there would be no reason to subsidize alternative forms of energy—because worthwhile technologies would succeed without government support.

There is no reason to think that government bureaucracies will do a good job trying to guess what the right technologies will be decades hence, what the right amount of carbon dioxide emissions will be in a given year (or even in total), what the right adaptive strategies are, what the right balance between cutting greenhouse gasses and adapting to warming is, and so on.

A great advantage to a tort-based compensation fund such as I describe, relative to a system of bureaucratic commands and political subsidies, is that it would foster the full engagement of the knowledge and expertise of consumers, inventors, and investors across the planet. And because the specifics of the fund would be continually updated based on the best available forecasts of damages, it would be very adaptive to changes in scientific consensus as well as to the implementation of new technologies for mitigation and adaptation.

My main concern with my proposal is that I’m not sure existing legal structures make it possible, and I’m not confident governments will set up new legal structures if needed. Tort law is well established. But global warming is a wide-scale issue involving a multitude of energy producers and potentially damaged parties in many regions. So it’s complicated.

I don’t think my proposal (or something like it) actually will be implemented, simply because few people will seriously consider it. But sometimes politics changes fast, and there’s a better chance of a tort-based approach gaining ground if I advocate it than if I don’t. Hopefully at least more people will start thinking about global warming in terms of actual damages and in terms of economic trade-offs.

We shouldn’t succumb to magical thinking about “renewable” energies. Solar and wind contribute a tiny fraction of total energy despite their heavy subsidies. Meanwhile, at least as of 2015, annual global use of fossil fuels continues to grow, not shrink. Today the earth supports billions of people, whose lives on the whole have gotten better over time, largely because we burn fossil fuels to run our computers and communications and appliances, power our cars and tractors and planes and ships, heat and cool our dwellings, and so on. Global warming potentially endangers many people’s welfare, safety, and lives in the future. Depriving people of energy would endanger their welfare and lives severely and immediately.

The right approach takes into account the profound benefits of fossil fuels today as well as their potential harms in future decades. A tort-based approach promises to best balance costs and benefits while spurring the most economic mix of adaptive strategies and transitions to other sources of energy.

—Ari Armstrong

Image: Christine Zenino