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Comet-Busting Lasers: A Response to Andy Crouch

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Andy Crouch was kind enough to respond to my article on climate change (which itself was penned in reply to Crouch’s original piece), and I’ve included a response of my own. His words are in the large blocks of italics below:

While I’m disappointed that you don’t even try to engage the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by far the most extensive and diligent effort I’m aware of to evaluate the science of global warming,

In my defense, I did refer to Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As an experienced writer, I’m sure you know of the necessary limits of a 700-word commentary piece. I chose to limit the scope of my piece to engage your original article.

If you would like to see me engage your claim that “there is in fact no serious disagreement among scientists that human beings are playing a major role in global warming,” I refer you to one of my responses on an earlier thread, wherein I cite the following statement from Hans von Storch, who heads the Coastal Research Institute of the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht, Germany: “A considerable number of climatologists are still by no means convinced that the fundamental questions have been adequately dealt with. Thus, in the last year a survey among climate researchers throughout the world found that a quarter of the respondents still harbor doubts about the human origin of the most recent climatic changes.”

There’s a lot more that could be said on the science of course. Suffice it to say that consensus (or even unanimity) of opinion among scientists does not rise to the level of establishing ontological truth. The majority can be, and often is, terribly wrong.

And since your piece really is more about the economic benefits of political action on climate change than the science (which you rather take for granted), I’m disappointed that you didn’t engage the work of the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004, whose “basic idea was to improve prioritization of the numerous problems the world faces, by gathering some of the world’s greatest economists to a meeting where some of the biggest challenges in the world would be assessed.”

what really disappoints me, coming from the Acton Institute, is your failure of economic imagination. Why should the action to mitigate global warming be a drain on economic resources? That has not been true of past major technological initiatives. I have every expectation that the world economy will *grow* as a result of the efforts to develop and transfer new technologies.

You may call it a “failure of economic imagination” to see the possible technological advances and innovations, but I question your optimism regarding the economic benefits of pursuing potential cures for a perceived problem that may or may not be caused by human activity. I would liken your argument to a sort of “broken window fallacy” writ large.

If you are disappointed by my lack of economic imagination, I in turn am disappointed by your lack of some basic economic understanding (e.g. opportunity cost). Your whole concept of an “environmental wager” is predicated on the concept that it doesn’t matter if Sir John and the IPCC are wrong about global warming, we’ll still be better off acting as if they were right even if they aren’t. The following thought experiment is intended to show why this just isn’t true. The science does matter…and so do economic costs.

“Back in the 60’s, I developed a weather changing machine which was in essence a sophisticated heat beam which we called a ‘laser.'”

To illustrate this with a bit of pop culture, we might think one day that a killer comet is hurtling toward earth. Let’s say we’ve only got twenty years before impact. Naturally after the initial panic passes, we come up with a plan. We have some time, so we get all our pointy-headed intellectuals together and invent some really cool comet-busting technology. I mean real nice sci-fi stuff. We send out our mission and get all our lasers (or whatever else) ready, and let’s say we do all this in just ten years. We’ve got plenty of time. We’re set to go, but when it’s time to “ready, aim, fire,” we only get to “ready.” As we try to aim, we realize we were wrong. There is no comet (or there is a comet but it’s not heading towards us).

What’s the result? Yeah, we’ve got some really cool comet-busting lasers. It might even be helpful to us if we want to build a Death Star. We employed a lot of pointy-headed intellectuals during those 10 years, so that’s good. Unemployment was down because everyone was working on the comet-busting laser. It’s all good right?

Take that, global warming!

I don’t think so. Maybe we stumble across some useful technological advances during the five years and in the course of spending billions if not trillions of dollars. But I don’t think we’ll accidentally stumble across the cure for AIDS, or the answer to malaria epidemics, or the means to clean water access, or the solution to political corruption in developing nations.

The point is our time, money, and resources can better be spent, right now, elsewhere. Maybe in twenty or fifty or a hundred years man-made global warming really will be a challenge…if we’re faithful with our resources and fight the problems we really have today, those later generations will be a lot better prepared to fight the problems of their day. If we squander our efforts on things that may or may not ever be real threats, then we can be sure that real people today will pay the price.

Furthermore, there is little need for command-and-control government policies — the creation of markets in carbon emissions should do much of the work very efficiently. I recently reviewed a study — I’ll try to track down the reference, but I’m traveling and don’t have it with me — suggesting that the Environmental Protection Act, which opponents at the time saw as a major threat to economic growth and jobs, actually *created* jobs and contributed to economic growth. And there is every reason to expect that policies to mitigate carbon emissions will be better designed to harness the energies of markets than the EPA.

I can agree with you that government policies that at least attempt to deal with the realities of the marketplace should be better than the EPA, again I’m not as optimistic that government-imposed carbon emission markets would “do much of the work very efficiently.” You can try to package the deal in market-friendly terminology, but the limits of emissions would still have to be set by governments. The Kyoto Protocol allows for “emissions trading,” but as this article title succinctly demonstrates, “CO2 market needs federal push to blossom.” For more on the future of cap and trade systems, see this article.

Really, if the science were so unsettled and the potential economic consequences so calamitous, why would corporations like BP, GE, and Shell (Shell!) be endorsing action on climate change? I believe they see tremendous economic opportunities in this area.

I can think of any number of reasons. For starters, such multi-nationals might think they perceive the handwriting on the wall, and that the kinds of regulatory standards that are coming out of the EU and efforts like Kyoto will inevitably be enacted globally, and the US will eventually capitulate. They already have to meet standards in many other countries…so why not make those standards consistent across their own operations?

If they are right, it’s of course more valuable from a public relations standpoint to be at the forefront of the shift. Thus, “earth-friendly” companies like BP and GE make a point of running commercials, wherein cute dancing baby elephants tell us about their “eco-magination.”

If BP, GE, and Shell want to take action on climate change, they should do so, and consumers who support their positions should make it a point to patronize their places of business. But these companies are not only advocating for action on their own part, they are advocating for imposed action on everyone. That’s whole different ballgame.

If these companies are right about climate change, then they’ll be richly rewarded for their business-savvy and their economic and technological imagination. If they’re wrong, then they’ll have wasted a lot of money and resources on not-immediately-useful technology. In either case, the market should be sufficient to reward or punish them. I don’t think we need “command-and-control government policies” on top of it.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Jordan, thanks for these further thoughts. The Copenhagen Consensus was a fascinating and provocative exercise. But let’s note that we now have two dueling “conensuses,” one of which you are employing to support your argument that mitigating carbon emissions carries too high an opportunity cost, one of which I employ to suggest that the science really is quite settled.

    You are right that scientific consensus can be wrong. But those of us who are not experts in a particular field ultimately have to rely on _something_ to guide our advocacy and policy-making. I actually think that a well-structured process of scientific debate is by far the most reliable guide we have. Surely it’s better than cherry-picking dissenting voices (on any side of a given issue) that have failed to persuade their peers within their discipline. It would be crazy to say that it is foolproof, but, as both the Copenhagen and IPCC processes assume, it is better than the alternative.

    And in this respect the Copenhagen exercise, while quite useful, was clearly less rigorous than the IPCC process. The IPCC process was based on peer-reviewed scientific research and furthermore was subject to not just scientific but government review. Every scientific claim had to pass muster by the 100 governments (including the USA’s) involved. As I quote Sir John as saying in my column, no other set of scientific claims has been subjected to such rigorous scrutiny. In comparison to this, the Copenhagen process, notwithstanding the eminence of its participants, was brief and tenuous. Indeed, its methods have been questioned by a wide range of economists, and the way it set up the presentation of climate change mitigation has been singled out for criticism. In the words of Robert Mendelsohn, one of the participants, as quoted in the Economist, “climate change was set up to fail.” Be that as it may, as complex and fuzzy as climate science is as a field (compared to, say, condensed matter physics), it is assuredly more settled than economics!

    I appreciate your comet-busting-laser analogy, but I’m not persuaded it completely applies. The comet-busting laser, in your scenario, would have no significant economic benefits should the primary threat turn out to be overstated. But this is not necessarily true with respect to carbon mitigation. For one thing, all carbon emissions, ultimately, are _waste._ To reduce waste is to increase economic efficiency. (A particularly helpful work in this regard is McDonough and Braungart’s _Cradle to Cradle_.) And in general I don’t quite understand why you insist on putting all the marks on the “cost” side of the ledger. The Acton Institute is the place I would least expect to see engaging in such zero-sum analysis. If, for example, we develop vastly safer and more effective nuclear power (or, to please the greens, solar power) to replace carbon fuels, and can transfer that power-generation technology to economies like China’s and India’s, how is the world economy not better off and positioned for more growth?

    In the end I’m sure that some of our disagreement comes down to the question of whether government intervention of any sort is required in situations like these (a question on which the Copenhagen participants were assuredly not representative of their discipline as a whole). If I understand you right, you feel that the market economy is equipped to deal with climate change if, when, and as it happens without any nudges from government. In fact, I suspect that the questions about the science of climate change, which come almost exclusively from partisans of unfettered markets, really reflect not so much genuine scientific concerns as economic ones. The wager is that markets alone will, when the time comes, provide the necessary incentives to avert disaster.

    But that, in the end, is as much of a wager as the one I propose, and policy-makers, and Christians, have to decide whether to take it. That larger question, to which of course the Acton Institute is dedicated to persuading the public, certainly merits ongoing debate and I, at least, have no axe to grind on the ultimate answer. But many of us look at the growth-producing success of past environmental legislation, as well as the disproportionate impact climate change will have on the world’s poorest human beings (the suffering and death of whom show up on no ledger), and think that to abandon creation’s future to the markets is, in this case, a singularly poor bet.

  • Jordan Ballor has a fun/interesting exchange with Andy Crouch on “lay-zerz” [insert Dr. Evil voice here] and a Christian viewpoint on global warming.

  • Neal Lang

    “If these companies are right about climate change, then they’ll be richly rewarded for their business-savvy and their economic and technological imagination.”

    If these companies’ are right, wouldn’t they be as guilty as the tobacco companies by producing and selling a product that they know is a risk to the health and safety of all humanity? As such, can the trial lawyers and class action law suits be coming soon?

    If Global Warming is truly a result of man’s use of carbon based fuels as some think, and if the World was as serious about solving this problem as they say, than the simpliest fix would be to shift the vast majority of all industrial production away from those economies such as Russia, India and China, that are terribly inefficient in converting BTU’s into GNP, and turn it over to the economies such as US, which are much more efficient producers. In this regards the Kyoto Protocol appears to be counter-intutitive, as it punishes the most efficient producers and in order to favor the inefficient.

  • One aspect of the evangelical involvement in debates over global warming and climate change that has intriqued me has been what I deem to be a rather large blind spot about the relation of religious conservatives to science.

    By this I mean that if ther

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