Is global warming really happening. If so, what should we do about it?
Measuring global warming is a job for scientists. They tell us it is happening.
Whether or not this warming is largely caused by human activity is also a scientific issue.
Although they are not unanimous, the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that the answer to this question is yes.
In his book "Science and Government," C.P. Snow lamented the fact that most political leaders are not trained as scientists but nonetheless must make policy decisions which hinge on scientific findings. He noted that much depends on the willingness and ability of leaders to listen to experts — and to understand what they are saying.
Of course, as Machiavelli noted long ago in "The Prince," "A prince who is without any wisdom himself, cannot be well advised."
Ideally, leaders would use scientists' advice about the consequences of proposed policies as guidance allowing them to get desired results by grounding their decisions in reality.
But many present leaders don't regard science as a guide to making wise decisions.
Instead, they see science as something bolstering or undermining support for what they want to do anyway. How else can we explain how neatly politicians' willingness to believe the climate scientists lines up with their party affiliations?
Climate scientists have considerable uncertainty about how serious the threat of global warming is. However we don't need certainty about a possible danger before it makes sense for us to try to mitigate that danger. There is only a slight chance that our house will burn or be destroyed by an earthquake, but prudent people pay good money for insurance.
Given even a small danger of civilization-wrecking global warming, conservatives should join liberals in willingness to incur the costs required to head it off. But conservatives' dislike for big government that can treat people arbitrarily makes them more reluctant to support such measures than are people who see government programs as the solution to most problems.
Increasing amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide is a basic cause of the greenhouse effect. So reducing the use of carbon-based fuels — natural gas, oil, and especially coal — is an obvious way to reduce global warming.
Fortunately, ways to reduce use of fossil fuels are available, and one of them is compatible with conservative values.
We need merely make fossil fuels more expensive than they are now.
Although directly regulating prices — except for public utility monopolies — is not a legitimate government function, prices for fossil fuels can be raised indirectly by imposing higher taxes on them. Since the tax is part of the price people will pay, normal market incentives will then lead people to burn less coal, oil, or natural gas while using more energy from other sources — atomic power, hydroelectric power, wind, and solar, with the exact mix depending on which of these alternatives is most inexpensive.
No heavy handed, arbitrary government decisions about which new technologies could do the best job would be necessary.
The price increase for fossil fuels could be gradual, avoiding the shock waves produced whenever major abrupt changes are imposed on the world by heavy handed government decisions.
Unless carefully designed, taxes on carbon emissions could produced two undesirable side effects. Since it would increase the cost of running cars and heating homes, it could impact poor people more seriously than better off people.
Depositing the tax revenues into government coffers — as done with regular taxes — could increase the danger of big government.
These problems could both be avoided by placing carbon tax revenue into a trust fund rather than into the government treasury. The trust fund would be disbursed in equal amounts to the public — every man, woman, and child subject to the government's jurisdiction — in an annual "social dividend" (a good capitalistic/conservative measure!).
The combined effect of more expensive carbon-based fuels together with the social dividend would be to increase slightly the purchasing power of the poor. They would receive more in dividends than the extra they would be spending for fuel.
The very wealthy, who use more energy running their yachts, private jets, and McMansions, would find their purchasing power somewhat reduced, since their social dividend would be less than the extra money they would be paying for fuel. For the average family, the extra fuel cost and the social dividend would cancel each other out.
Everyone, rich, poor, or average, would benefit from knowing that the carbon tax plus dividend policy would help protect the environment in which their children and grandchildren will be living.
What is there here for conservatives not to like?
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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