Archived Posts September 2005 » Page 4 of 5 | Acton PowerBlog

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, September 9, 2005

It’s one thing to have a great government policy put in place with intention of seeking justice. It’s quite another to continue to promote policies whose unintended consequences hurt the most vulnerable populations.

Even though Iraq has the world’s third largest oil reserves, the lack of a reliable infrastructure, sabotage, and government-imposed price controls (oil is $.05 a gallon, a holdover from the Saddam Hussein regime) make gas for law-abiding citizens hard to come by.

These price controls result in forced government rationing. Now new regulations allow driving only on every other day, depending on your license plate number. Last Tuesday was the first day of the restrictions, and only cars ending with odd numbers were allowed on the streets of Baghdad.

Reuters reports on the effect that these policies are having on Iraq’s working classes, such as they are. Taxi driver Amir al-Hameeri, who did not take his car out on Tuesday, fearful of a fine equivalent to $20 if his even-numbered licence plate was spotted.

“It’s a ruthless decision against the poor,” he grumbled. “How can I feed my family now?”

This is a prime example of how policies which may have the best of intentions (affordable fuel for all Iraqis) that ignore the realities of the marketplace have adverse consequences. And as always, it is the poor among us who suffer the most.

Here’s an NPR story with more on how motorists are “beating the system” through black markets and other means.

HT: John Powers

The House is likely to vote this week on an aid package that will provide nearly $52 billion during the next month or so on housing, clothing and other recovery needs for Hurricane Katrina victims. In the Senate, however, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana threatened to delay passing the bill for more money. Republicans said that any attempt to amend the bill could delay getting the measure to President Bush for his signature before last week’s $10.5 billion disbursement runs out. Instead of delaying the bill for more money can’t Congress simply pass another bill in a few weeks after needs are re-assessed?

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Thursday, September 8, 2005
Flavius Josephus

With the prevalance of moral relativism in the western world, science tends to forge ahead, regardless of opposition from traditional ethics, into whatever realms it deems neccessary for the “advancement” of mankind. To counter-balance the extremity of the scientific community, especially in regard to the genetic engineering of hybrid species, I would like to offer up the thoughts of an historian from 2000 years ago regarding the mixing of species. His ideas come from the long oral and written traditions passed down through the Jews from Moses:

…The seeds are also to be pure, and without mixture, and not to be compounded of two or three sorts, since Nature does not rejoice in the union of things that are not in their own nature alike; nor are you to premit beasts of different kinds to gender together, for there is reason to fear that this unnatural abuse may extend from beasts of different kinds to men, though it takes its first rise from evil practices about such smaller things. Nor is anything to be allowed, by imitation whereof any degree of subversion may creep into the constitution; nor do the laws neglect small matters but provide that even those may be managed after an unblamable manner. (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.20)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, September 8, 2005


FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has produced a “Kidz Rap,” designed to alert children to the dangers of disasters and the function of FEMA.

For example, did you know that “mitigation is important to our agency”? Also, “When disaster strikes, we are at our best / But we’re ready all the time, ’cause disasters don’t rest.”

Click here to listen to the “rap” (RealAudio required).

No word yet on what role the FEMA rap played in informing Deamonte Love of how to act in an emergency.

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)

In this week’s Acton Commentary titled “Pascal’s Blunder: Miscalculating the Threat of Global Warming”, Jordan Ballor writes on the growing voice of evangelical Christians speaking out about global warming. Ballor responds to a recent article in Christanity Today by Andy Crouch, who compares the current debate about global warming to Pascal’s wager, stating that we gain nothing if global warming turns out to be completely natural and beyond human control, but that we gain everything if we can control it. Ballor points out the error with this line of thinking:

The problem with this analogy is that Pascal’s wager is only valid when placed within the context of the eternal and the ultimate. When it is applied to everyday issues, it quickly loses its persuasive power. Crouch’s contention that “we have little to lose” if we exaggerate the threat of global warming displays no recognition of the reality of the future impact of unduly restrictive political policies and environmental regulations.

Ballor goes on to cite Vernon L. Smith and Thomas C. Schelling, two distinguished professors at George Mason University and the University of Maryland, respectively, who argue that there are much more pressing issues affecting the world to which our attention should be turned toward. The money we spend researching global warming could much more effectively be providing solutions to problems such as AIDS/HIV, malnutrition, and hunger.

Read the full text here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, September 7, 2005

In a move that sets a dangerous precedent in an already muddled area, U.S. immigration officials revoked the asylum of a Chinese Christian who had been imprisoned for organizing underground church meetings. The INS decision was upheld last month by an Appeals court panel. Here’s an in-depth story from Christianity Today.

Ann Buwalda, founder and executive director of human-rights group Jubilee Campaign USA, said that the ruling “Essentially…removed religion as a basis of gaining asylum.” The U.S. government’s contention was that when China imprisoned Xiaodong Li “for engaging in illicit religious activities, China was simply motivated by a desire to maintain social order, not persecute based on his religious beliefs.”

The idea of maintaining social order by sharply restricting and heavily regulating religious worship and activity strikes me as a throughly Hobbesian notion (see post below).

HT: Persecution Blog

Thomas Hobbes once described human life in the “state of nature” as that of war, in which, in addition to the lack of learning, commerce, and the arts, there is “continual fear, and danger of a violent death. And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The tales coming out of New Orleans give us a glimpse of the truth of Hobbes’ observation. When evacuations were made mandatory prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, those who were unable to leave were shepherded in large numbers to the shelter of the Louisiana Superdome.

In a recent New York Times article aptly titled, “Officials Struggle to Reverse a Growing Sense of Anarchy,” the authors write of “Joseph W. Matthews, a deputy fire chief who is the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the city of New Orleans.” Matthews “described harrowing conditions both inside and outside the city’s Superdome and its convention center, facilities that had been intended to shelter victims of the storm and floods but where many people were finding themselves again victimized – by a lack of provisions, by an absence of basic services and by violence.”

“Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable,” Mr. Matthews said. “We need additional troops, food, water.” Mr. Matthews’ final request gets to the heart of Hobbes’ observation: “And we need personnel, law enforcement. This has turned into a situation where the city is being run by the thugs.”

While Hobbes is correct in his diagnosis of the corrupt nature of human beings, he is mistaken in his prescriptive cure. He assumed that the State or government is the solution to the problem of human nature. In an introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan, the author summarizes the Hobbesian view: “For the sake of peace and order, religion cannot be allowed political power and conscientious authority it has so often claimed. To cure our political ills and contain the state of war we may have to submit to governments we thoroughly dislike. The most prevalent and powerful traits of human nature are unpleasant and socially destructive.”

Hobbes’ anthropology aptly accounts for a fallen human nature of the kind related to us in the Bible. But his soteriology is sorely lacking. Instead of juxtaposing the “conscientious authority” of religion and the curative role of the state, we would do better to arrive at a Christian and biblical account of the function of the State, which is not only powerful and important but also limited and penultimate.

To a certain extent Hobbes and the Christian tradition can agree on the immediate solution to outbreaks of anarchy and chaos such as have been seen over the last few days in New Orleans. Deputy Fire Chief Matthews gets at the need for government intervention to restore law and order. This is at the heart of the biblical depiction of the State, as when the apostle Paul writes of the civil magistrate in Romans 13, “he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).

Luther, following this, viewed the role of the State as an agent of God’s “left hand,” which is “God’s rule or freely given grace, which is common to all.” The State, therefore, has the role of preserving the temporal grace of common justice in the world, and deters the outbreak of social unrest and violence.

But the religious view which Hobbes so despises goes beyond this mere left-handed rule for the ultimate cure for human sinfulness. The depraved human must not only be bounded externally by law and authority but must be renewed inwardly. This is represented by Luther as God’s right hand, which is firstly Christ, and secondly the resulting special favor of God on those who are in Christ, “the grace or faithfulness or work of God.” This special grace, salvation by Christ, gives rise to a third sense of God’s right hand, “the awarding of glory in the future.”

So our view of the human person, in depravity and in redemption, must go beyond merely the “left hand.” The situation isn’t an either/or between the State and religion as Hobbes has set up, but rather a both/and. The State must act as an agent of God’s preserving grace, limiting evil and violence while promoting justice, while conversion, the outworking of the Christian faith through evangelism, extends God’s church. Together, the two represent both the left and the right hands of God’s rule.

Blog author: kwoods
posted by on Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Like everyone else outside the Gulf Coast (i.e., not a direct victim or a tireless rescue worker, volunteer, or military member there to help), the TV remote has become my constant companion. The challenges are unprecedented–which is hard to fathom after 9/11. We are all passionately concerned that Katrina victims be safely and humanely moved out of harm’s and ill-health’s way. But that is only one small step.

Once the scope of disaster and the need became evident, communities all over the country began to evaluate how many victims that their local resources could accept and empower beyond mere emergency support. Governor Bob Riley calls this effort in Alabama “Operation Golden Rule.” Just as small business is the lifeblood of America’s economy, so are small communities going to be the long-term assistance that will be so critical to Katrina victims. Large government and relief organizations will address the large issues and make the big decisions.

But it will take the human connection to regain hope. As people in churches, community centers, and small neighborhood clinics welcome new neighbors so desperate for help, these communities–maybe our own communities–need our help as well. Start where you are with what you have. No effort or outreach is too small.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 5, 2005

From the PowerBlog archives:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–U.S. Book of Common Prayer, “For Labor Day,” (1979), p. 261