Science versus Rights


Family Security Matters


Harvey was the first hurricane of category 3 strength or greater to come ashore in the U.S. since Wilma hit Florida in 2005. Nevertheless, scientists from sea to shining sea are claiming that Harvey, and now Irma, prove beyond a doubt that man-made climate change is real.

Climate scientists tell us we must reduce our production of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. This would mean reducing the burning of coal, oil, and gas. Given the current state of our technology – wind and solar are vastly more expensive than fossil fuels – reducing the burning of coal, oil, and gas would mean reducing economic productivity altogether, especially energy generation and manufacturing. It would diminish Americans’ wealth, comfort, leisure, safety, health, and longevity, and it would weaken our security from foreign enemies.

But there’s more. If a government could arbitrarily reduce a people’s economic productivity, then liberty itself would soon be at an end. Imagine if government could limit the number of books that could be published in a given year, or the number of newspapers or websites that could operate at given time, or the number of churches there could be. To impose such limits would be tyranny. So would choking off the economic productivity of a people.

Those leading the charge on climate change say we have no choice but to limit the production of carbon dioxide, whatever the cost in wealth and liberty. We are like the occupants of a lifeboat, for whom the normal rules no longer apply. Science is on their side, they say. And science tells us, in effect, that we can no longer afford economic rights.

But science has nothing to say about rights. Rights are a political concept grounded in morality. Science quantifies, but morality is unquantifiable. Philosophy, not science, tells us which moral principles to practice. We choose them for philosophical reasons, and then we live with the consequences.

Scientists could no doubt amass a mountain of facts and statistics to show why any specific right is impracticable. Consider free speech; the world is awash in incorrect ideas and outright falsehoods. One could make a plausible scientific case that the world would be a better place if all the mistaken and dishonest people were silenced. But the moral principle of free speech is grounded in the reality that for truth to triumph, each individual must be free to decide for himself what is true, which means, in effect, that men must be free to lie. So we choose free speech for moral reasons, and we live with the consequences.

Environmentalists pioneered the use of science to undermine and discredit rights. In the name of preserving wetlands and ecosystems and endangered species, they have decimated landowners’ rights. In California, the cost of building permits and “growth mitigation” fees required to exercise one’s right to build a home on one’s own land can exceed $65,000.

The use of science to discredit rights is taking a new direction at the University of California at Davis. Dr. Garen Wintermute is spending a half million dollars of taxpayers’ money to set up a “gun violence research center” to make the scientific case that the right to bear arms is impracticable. But the moral principle behind the right to bear arms is that no law-abiding individual should have his right of self-defense curtailed because some other individual used a gun improperly. A free people adopt this principle and they live with the consequences.

What if, in the case of climate change, we stuck to our moral principles and lived with the consequences? What if we left it to each individual to decide how to deal with the predictions of the climate change people – which is how things are supposed to work in a country grounded on individual rights? Would civilization as we know it come to an end? What is the truth about global warming?

One truth is that it is extremely difficult for a layman to have an informed, first-hand understanding of the science involved. It is just too complicated. If a layman wants to know what to think about the science of global warming, he must simply decide which experts to trust. Another truth is that there is almost nothing that scientists in the relevant disciplines universally agree upon when it comes to climate change. A third truth is that there are immense uncertainties associated with some of the most important questions involved in climate change.

Consider some of those questions:

  • The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing since 1950 or so. About this there is general agreement.
  • Human activities are the primary cause of the increase. About this there is widespread, though not universal, agreement.
  • The increase in carbon dioxide will necessarily cause the planet to warm. There is some disagreement about this, although climatologist Judith Curry, in her excellent blog, has said “[W]hether atmospheric gases such as CO2 (and H20, CH4, and others) warm the planet is not an issue where skepticism is plausible.”
  • Whether the earth is now warming is a matter of widespread, though not universal, agreement. It turns out that it is surprisingly difficult to determine the annual average temperature of the earth over the course of recent decades. It is hard to dispute that the planet has warmed since 1900, though it has not warmed steadily since then, and the warming has slowed enough since 2000 to call into question whether the warming is continuing at present.
  • Whether, if the earth is warming, that warming is being caused by the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is a matter of intense dispute between the climate change establishment and a determined opposition. Other candidates for the cause of the warming are natural phenomena, such as ocean warming and cooling cycles.
  • How much the planet will warm, if at all, as a result of the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide is a matter of great uncertainty.
  • Whether a warming of the planet would constitute a danger to human well-being – or a possible benefit – is another question that pits the climate change establishment against a stubborn opposition.

What if warming is occurring, and what if it causes an appreciable rise in sea levels, which is the primary catastrophic consequence that the climate change establishment predicts? As David R. Henderson and John H. Cochrane pointed out in the Wall Street Journal recently, much of the world recently went through such a dislocation as rising sea levels would cause. The Industrial Revolution saw the western world transformed in less than a century from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban one through the migration of a huge proportion of its people. This rural-to-urban relocation is still going on throughout the developing world. People adjust. And free people adjust better.

But people with the wealth of the industrialized countries adjust best of all. One indispensable way that a free, capitalist, industrial people would adjust to genuine climate change, human-caused or otherwise, would be technologically. Perhaps we’ll discover ways to make wind and solar energy economically competitive with fossil fuels. In the meantime, though, we’ve already found a technological solution to the alleged problem of carbon dioxide. Nuclear power generation emits no such gas. And it’s one of the safest ways of generating energy.  

But what about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima? More persons – one – died erecting a wind turbine at Searsburg, Vermont this year than were killed at Three Mile Island. The poorly constructed Chernobyl plant is a cautionary tale about the dangers of Communist dictatorship, not nuclear energy. At Fukushima, the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami rank among the most extreme of natural disasters; that there were no immediate deaths due to radiation is a testament to the safety of the nuclear plant.

The reason we haven’t replaced fossil fuels with nuclear energy already is not technological, but political. It is because, unlike wind and solar energy, nuclear energy would allow us to continue to prosper as a free people. As Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1975, “[G]iving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” What did he mean? To anyone who yearns to stop, and reverse, man’s remaking of the natural landscape, wealth is the great enemy, because wealth fuels that remaking. Limit manufacturing and energy generation and you limit the creation of new wealth. Global warming provides the rationale environmentalists have long sought to choke off the generation of new wealth and thereby to preserve and restore the earth’s natural landscape.

Climate scientists say we should err on the side of caution; we just can’t afford to wait until all the science is worked out. But where’s the caution in undermining our primary means, wealth and technology, for securing our survival as a free people? Destroy our capacity to generate new wealth and technology, and you force us precisely into the position of wretched castaways on a lifeboat, reduced to rationing a fixed supply of resources to an ever-shrinking population.

And we’re expected to choose this fate on the scientists’ say-so, just as medieval Christians depended on the Church to interpret God’s ways. No thanks. I say choose freedom, capitalism, and technological innovation, and then live with the consequences. If we find that circumstances warrant drastic action, we can always go nuclear.

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