Lamar Smith and Implementing effective policy on climate change

There has been considerable ire directed at Texan Congressman Lamar Smith for his Washington Post Op-Ed entitled “Overheated rhetoric on climate change doesn’t make for good policies

Lamar begins

Climate change is an issue that needs to be discussed thoughtfully and objectively. Unfortunately, claims that distort the facts hinder the legitimate evaluation of policy options

Lamar concludes

Instead of pursuing heavy-handed regulations that imperil U.S. jobs and send jobs (and their emissions) overseas, we should take a step back from the unfounded claims of impending catastrophe and think critically about the challenge before us. Designing an appropriate public policy response to this challenge will require that we fully assess the facts and the uncertainties surrounding this issue, and that we set aside the hyped rhetoric.

I could not agree more. Judith Curry shows that the so-called “scientific” criticism is less balanced than the politician’s initial comments.

To think critically and objectively about any complex problem, it needs to be broken down into sub-sections with relevant areas of expertise. This is no more important in climate change policy, which science demands belief and people get lost in irrelevant detail. A starting point is to divide the issue into three parts, with the relevant experts in brackets.

1. Whether there is a potential problem. (Scientists)

2. Whether that potential problem is non-trivial. (Economists interpreting the scientists work)

3. Whether there is the ability to do something positive about that problem. (Economists and public policy-makers to formulate any policy. Economist/auditors, with some input from scientists, to interpret the results.)

1. Whether there is a potential problem.

The potential problem most would accept. Increase the level of greenhouse gases and average temperatures goes increase. It actually folds into the second.

2. Whether that potential problem is non-trivial.

But the second is far more important. The starting point to see if the size of the problem, it to break any potential impacts down into the components of magnitude, likelihood, time for changes to occur and the weighting that can be given to the scientific evidence. This is discussed here. Like in many other areas, the weighting we give to expert opinion should be based on a track record. Climate science is still very much in its infancy and many of the projected signposts were either wrong (worsening storms, accelerating sea level rises) or much too extreme (temperature rises). In fact any alleged successes are either through luck or through the initial prediction being so vague that it could hardly fail to be correct. There should also be a recognition concerning any potential benefits. For instance, Scotland would benefit from being a tad warmer, and increased CO2 may help plant growth. There is also a question of the quality of the climate model projections. There seems little or attempt at quality improvement through learning from past mistakes and building on successes. Further I see plenty of claims of being on the side of peer-reviewed science, and on consensus, whilst have a huge public-relations effort but little about building on the traditions of the greatest scientists, or learning from the philosophers of science. “Climate Science” seems somewhat out of that mainstream.

3. Whether there is the ability to do something positive about that problem.

The third is where the policy-makers step in. Are they able to deliver a policy that will tackle the issues at a lower costs than the benefits? To give a medical analogy, have they sufficient qualifications and the moral duty of care, that where they inflict painful treatments, the patient (the human race and/or Mother Gaia) is better off than if they had done nothing. Given the massive policy failures so far, the answer seems highly negative. Given that much of the effort is going into shutting down and policy discussion by believers in the science and in the policy, failures seem set to continue through deliberate negligence of this issue.

To take the medical analogy further, treatment is tempered by the uniqueness of the ailment and the track record in treating that ailment. For instance hip replacements have been performed for many years and are quite frequent, so the risks and pain of treatment, along with the mortality rates are known. So an otherwise reasonably healthy person of forty whose hip joints need replacing to enable them to walk would be recommended for the operation. A frail ninety year old would not. But we have never had human-caused climate change before. Indeed, there is a huge dispute about how serious the symptoms will actually be. They have not come to fruition just yet. Furthermore the “treatment” has not been properly tested. Neither have those devising the treatment any sort of qualifications or track record in devising similar treatments. Why do I know this? Because there has never been a global initiative to use economic tools to drive through a solution to a problem whose outward characteristics (though not necessarily the causes) are a naturally-occurring phenomena, neither are involved people who have experience is getting consensus on global issues, such as nuclear non-proliferation.

Note on the Moral View

I have a strong moral view that politicians should act to make the world a better place, as the underlying desired outcome of public service. It can be on the world stage or in a local community. Climate policy means imposing costs now to avoid much higher costs later. It might be a simplistic and naïve view, but the opposite – that politicians work to make a net negative impact, or do not care what effect they have, or simply work to serve some small factional interest (and to hell with everybody else) – are views that are at least distasteful and at worst downright evil. Like a medical professional, they have a duty of care to make sure there is a reasonable expectation that net positive outcomes will happen, and to monitor that progress.

Kevin Marshall