Posted by: New Class Traitor | July 13, 2010

Walter Russell Mead: climate alarmism as the new Prohibitionism

Walter Russell Mead gives a smackdown to the CAGW (catastrophic anthropogenic global warming) crowd that deserves to be read in full.

Note that he is not an AGW “denier”  (in the Godwinesque loaded language of the CAGW crowd): he thinks we may well have a problem on our hands. Rather he draws an analogy with the Prohibitionists: they were drawing attention to a very real problem (alcoholism and its social ravages), but their policy prescription (Prohibition) turned out to be so disastrous that it led to the only example in US history where a constitutional amendment (the 18th, establishing Prohibition) had to be annulled by another (the 21st).

Another analogy he draws is with the interbellum anti-war movement, which likewise addressed a very real issue (the carnage of wars in general, and most recently WW I in particular) but whose policy prescriptions, implemented, set the stage for an even bloodier WW II.

This doesn’t mean that nothing can or should be done.  Nudging the US economy toward less energy intensive activity while cutting the costs of hiring people is a sensible way to promote the kind of high tech, complex service economy that will serve us best down the road with or without global warming[…]

I note that the Indian government, as allergic as ever to the Copenhagen approach, is attempting to end that country’s wasteful and destructive policy of subsidizing energy use by keeping fuel costs artificially low.  This is happening for economic, not environmental reasons: the Indian government simply cannot afford the cost of these subsidies, and it is prepared to face strikes and protests to see the reforms through.  This single reform if carried through and sustained, is likely to do more for the environment than the complex, expensive, time consuming and largely ineffectual Kyoto Protocol.  Ending fuel subsidies was not a green idea; it was a growth idea.  It was not a global policy; it was an Indian policy.  The ideas that get us out of this mess will be ideas that work for specific countries and that make the economy work better, produce more wealth and use energy and raw materials more efficiently.

Alcohol abuse was a real problem in 1918, but the Prohibitionist belief that there was One Big Legislative Answer only made things worse.  Over the years, we’ve made progress on reducing the effect of alcohol abuse on our society in various ways.  Organizations like AA have helped millions stop drinking while leaving those who can drink responsibly to do so in peace.  Strict enforcement of drunk driving laws has dramatically reduced highway deaths due to drink.  Many of the most important advances had nothing to do with direct assaults on the alcohol problem.  Increased economic competition ended the days of the three martini lunch.  Attacks on discrimination against women have given women and children more economic choices when Daddy spends all his money at the corner saloon; enforcement of laws against domestic violence has helped curb the vicious spouse and child abuse that was once part of John Barleycorn’s toll on our society.  We are not all the way there yet, and as long as human nature is what it is we may never get there, but once we had the good sense to ignore Carry Nation and the crazy Prohibitionist cranks, we were able to make significant and sustained progress dealing with the problem.

Something like this is going to have to happen on the climate front.  Relatively small steps, or larger steps often undertaken for reasons that have little directly to do with climate, will have to see us through.  Until more greens understand that, and until the green movement as a whole disabuses itself of the dangerous fantasy that the way to solve our environmental problems is to embrace Malthusian fantasies, utopian treaties and grandiose laws, the green movement will continue to be a drag on human progress — even as the computer models get better and the temperature goes up.

At best, the green movement might be compared to an alarm clock: jangling shrilly to wake up the world.  That is fair enough; they have turned our attention to a problem that needs to be carefully examined and dealt with.  But the first thing you do when you wake up is to turn the alarm clock off; otherwise that shrill beeping noise will distract you from the problems of the day.

The alarm clock will never understand this; making shrill and irrational noise is what alarm clocks do and is all they understand.  But sensible and thoughtful people who want humanity to live fuller, richer lives in a cleaner and more sustainable world need to get past the naive and crude policy ideas that currently dominate green thinking and start giving these questions the serious attention and careful thought they deserve.

Indeed.

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