In a media atmosphere increasingly characterized by ‘for’ and ‘a’gin’ opinion writers, libertarian Ron Bailey has his own take on climate, climate science … and possible policy responses.
Long-time Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey likes the position he’s staked out as neither “green sympathizer” nor as “industry apologist.” And he likes too being neither fish nor fowl — that is neither Democratic nor Republican, not “blue” and not “red” — when it comes to convenient political labels.
It may be that being “free-market” and libertarian is something of its own niche market.
To Bailey, it’s the political unpredictability that helps the Reason website attract some four-million page views, as it did last month.
The libertarian-oriented organization and its publication pride themselves on deflating balloons of received wisdom. And Bailey, as one of the leading libertarian columnists on the environment and climate change, has spent 15 years at Reason doing just that, mixing wit, sarcasm, a bit of well-calculated cantankerousness, and a lot of detailed policy analysis.
Even if you don’t agree with him — and many progressives doubtless will not, given his earlier history of climate skepticism and his continued opposition to most government regulatory solutions, such as cap and trade — his articles consistently serve up a kind of bipartisan pleasure by skewering the powerful on many sides.
Take for example his views on the 2012 Democratic and Republican party platforms.
Bailey needles the GOP for not even “bothering to address the scientific evidence for man-made warming” and says of the party’s pro-nuclear stance: “There is not a word about why taxpayers should serve as nuclear power venture capitalists by being on the hook for $17 billion in federal nuclear power plant loan guarantees.”
Likewise, he takes to task the Democrats, under President Obama, for failing to live up to a variety of promises. Further, he notes, “It is heartening that the President recognizes the importance of natural gas production to the future of U.S. economy and job creation. This suggests that his administration will not endorse ideological environmentalists calls for a moratorium on fracking shale gas.”
In 1993, Bailey became the first Warren T. Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, named after the Detroit News’ staunchly conservative environmental correspondent. He spent the 1990s and early 2000s poking at holes he saw in the atmospheric science and editing books that exposed what he considered to be “eco-myths” and “eco-scams”. His was a take-no-prisoners writing style.
In August 2005, Bailey renounced his climate skepticism because, he says, of the publication of studies in Science that brought satellite data patterns more into line with surface temperature data.
“Anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up,” he wrote in “We’re All Global Warmers Now.” “All data sets — satellite, surface, and balloon — have been pointing to rising global temperatures.”
And a year later, in a humorous piece — “Confessions of an Alleged ExxonMobil Whore” and subtitled “Actually no one paid me to be wrong about global warming. Or anything else.” — he documented his path from global warming skepticism to data-driven acceptance of human-induced climate change. It was around the time that other like-minded journalists and observers such as Gregg Easterbrook were changing their views on global warming (Bailey has pointed out he got there first.)
In any case, since then Bailey has trained his fire on — among other science-related topics — green-oriented solutions and IPCC efforts to find global fixes to the problem. He may believe in global warming, but the solutions, he feels, need to be free-market. There’s no renouncing that, he says.
The Yale Forum recently caught up with Bailey in a phone interview. Following is an edited transcript:
Yale Forum: What role is libertarianism and libertarian thought playing now in the environmental and climate change debates?
Ron Bailey: I hesitate to speak for all libertarians, because as we all know they are by their nature individualists. (laughter) Let me approach it this way: I think the skepticism with regard to climate change comes from a values problem. The sort of people who are pressing it as an important problem are in fact the sort of people who typically trample the kinds of values that libertarians hold with regard to individual initiative, entrepreneurial spirit — that kind of thing. So that then induces a kind of skepticism automatically when the kinds of claims made by environmentalists are in fact made. So you want to carefully evaluate the evidence before getting into those types of claims.
On the flip side, I should point out that environmentalists similarly have a values bias. They automatically adopt the sorts of claims that undermine free markets. They have literally endorsed every environmental crisis that has come down the pike over the past 40 years: overpopulation; the threat of toxic chemicals; the notion of global famine in the offing. These things proved not to be the case, or at least certainly were not the case in the time frame that had been predicted by their adherents over the decades.
Everybody adheres to their values is my point. I’d point you to some of the work the Yale Cultural Cognition Project has done on this.
Yale Forum: What do you think of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s streak of libertarianism and his take on the environment and climate change?
Ron Bailey: To be honest with you, I don’t know very much about it. I try not to do politics. I focus on policy. Honestly, I don’t think I know anything about what Paul Ryan has said about climate change. On the other hand, I have recently looked at the Republican Party platform and the only mention of the words “climate change” in the platform are sort of making fun of the Obama administration’s focus on climate change as a national security issue. They’re also against any sort of cap-and-trade program. And I can agree with them on that, but for probably different reasons.
Yale Forum: You’ve said you think environmentalists don’t appreciate that privatizing common spaces — rivers, land, etc. — can help solve problems, because then someone has ownership and an interest in stewardship. But obviously that’s problematic when talking about the atmosphere. How do you reconcile those notions?
Ron Bailey: I would like to submit to you, and this is something that I think can be fairly easily documented, that wherever you see an environmental problem in the world, it is a commons problem. The problem is occurring in an open-access commons. The problem is that with environmentalism most of the policies that are endorsed — by ideological environmentalists, I’ll call them — basically want to enlarge commons rather than restrict them. They want to increase access in certain ways. I think the good policies go in exactly the other direction. I think [environmentalists] are basically advocating policies that will destroy the resources they believe that they’re protecting. But that’s a long discussion.
The atmosphere and the oceans are two of the largest commons. So what could you do to privatize them? One of the things that was suggested of course was a cap-and-trade program, which is essentially a kind of way of trying to privatize the atmosphere. That would be initially very attractive, you would think, to free-market people. But the problem is we’ve now seen the system following the Kyoto Protocol in Europe; we’ve seen how that system got gamed — a system of crony capitalism — and it has been a complete failure. Basically, you cannot trust countries to be honest with regard to their emissions, and to monitor that is almost impossible.
I saw a report about a year or so ago, from UBS, that argued that the European trading scheme resulted in absolutely no quantifiable reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in Europe. And they made no changes in technology as a result; other policies have [reduced emissions], mostly subsidizing renewables, but the trading scheme itself has been a failure. Having watched that, I personally decided that a trading scheme on an international scale simply will not work.
And then having watched proposed cap-and-trade legislation on Capitol Hill, and seeing the tradeoffs with corporations — basically to bribe them to sign on to it — also worries me considerably. One of the particular problems about that scheme is that incumbent companies would get the benefits from that. But this would exclude anybody new from coming along, with new ideas, and having access to carbon credits immediately. It would be a barrier to entry to new companies. And that was just a terrible thing to do.
So privatizing the atmosphere under that kind of trading scheme does not appear to me to work. I wish that it did. It is a clever idea, but I cannot see how the politicians can be trusted to implement it honestly.
Yale Forum: So is there another privatization idea you’d endorse to solve the climate problem?
Ron Bailey: There are four ways I believe you could address climate change. The first is cap and trade, which I believe has failed. The second one that I would hope might work – and I’ve done some thinking about it – is an international carbon tax. Basically, the argument is that a carbon tax is more transparent than if you were trying to measure the emissions of every factory, every car, every barbeque pit, every whatever. It’s a tax put on the wellhead for carbon fuels and it flows through the economy, and you will know whether China or India or Brazil or Russia has put the tax on. You’ll be able to monitor that in a much simpler way. The problem is that taxes also get gamed in all kinds of ways, and loopholes get created. Proposals I’ve seen make that problematic at an international level.
Yale Forum: Where does the revenue go, though?
Ron Bailey: I would absolutely oppose it if it were not a one-for-one replacement for income taxes or payroll taxes. It should be neutral. The whole point of it is to get rid of more carbon emissions, not to give more revenue to the government.
The other more intriguing thing, and this is where I think things are going to go ultimately, is that people are going to focus on creating low-carbon technologies for energy production. And I foresee how that trend is going to win out by the end of this century. There’s some wonderful work by Jesse Ausubel at Rockefeller University that has been showing that de-carbonization has been going on basically for two centuries and that trend has continued to accelerate over time. I think that there’s a very good prospect that those technologies will win out in the end, and possibly solve the problem without too much interference with regard to these kind of cap-and-trade or carbon tax schemes.
But there’s a fourth way to look at it that I find intriguing: That is inter-generational equity. We always hear about inter-generational equity, and the concern is that people should have, a century from now, essentially the natural environment that we have today …. Go into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scenarios, you look at their high-carbon emissions scenarios or economics. What you find is that in that world, the average incomes are somewhere around $100,000 a year in 2100, per capita globally. Then consider the Stern review out of England, which was very important and which looked at the economic stakes of carbon loading to the atmosphere over a long time scale. The worst-case scenario is that global warming would reduce incomes by 20 percent by the year 2100 — something like that. That means that instead of making $100,000 a year, people in 2100 would be making $80,000 a year. The current per capita in the world today is around $8,000 to $9,000. So how should people living at $8,000 to $9,000 sacrifice for people who are going to be making $80,000 one-hundred years from now? That’s inter-generational equity. Another way of looking at it is: How much should your great grandparents, who were making $2,000 a year, have sacrificed to have the atmosphere essentially 1.5 degrees cooler than it is.
Yale Forum: Professor John Christy, climate scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, has been your go-to climatologist through the years. Why?
Ron Bailey: My bias is against models. My bias is in favor of empirical data. The reason that came about is that I saw how models could be used and abused. For example, the “limits to growth” controversy, about resource availability and so forth. That includes the Global 2000 Report that came out of the Carter administration. And they were simply wrong, it turned out, with regard to the availability of lots of different resources. So what I would like to do is to think that you compare models with empirical data. When I first started to report on climate back in the 1980s, Christy and Roy Spencer had started a satellite data collection, and it was unlike the surface area temperatures …. It was diverging quite significantly from the thermometer surface data, and so I found that interesting. You could imagine why surface data might not capture what was actually going on over the entire globe, including over the oceans. That’s when I became intrigued by the satellite data.
What’s interesting is that it turned out that it needed correction, and it was corrected, and it became more in line with the surface data temperatures. But what I’m intrigued by is that if you look at the range of the temperature data increases over time, over any reasonable length of time — let’s say three decades — the satellites are seeing an increase of 0.14 Celsius per decade. The highest is about 0.19 Celsius per decade. Those are still lower than the modeled predictions …. There are all sorts of reasons that might be the case, such as natural variation. But what I find funny about natural variation is that when the data do not confirm models, they basically say, “Well, they can’t capture natural variation over the period of a decade or so. You have to wait 16, 18 years.” So natural variation can be used by both sides to explain away stuff they don’t want to hear. I find that somewhat amusing.
Yale Forum: So what do you make of the consensus figure of at least 0.6 Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels? Do you agree?
Ron Bailey: I’m more worried about the rate of warming than total warming. I think the thing we can all agree on is that since the 1950s, the climate has warmed up about 1.4 degrees Farenheit, thereabouts. In terms of the rate, historically there has been a difference between the various datasets, as I understand it.
Yale Forum: You reviewed Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature back when it first came out. What do you think of what McKibben’s doing now?
Ron Bailey: I think that Bill is a thoughtful guy who has always had a bias and belief that the world is coming to an end, and that humanity is the biggest threat to the planet. He’s had this view ever since he worked at The New Yorker. Whenever he sees data, he interprets it in the most dire possible way. And I’m not inclined to do it that way; and I consider myself to be more objective. He’s no longer doing journalism, he’s doing activism. That’s fine. I happen to think he’s more alarmed than is necessary.
He gave me a nice blurb for my book on biotechnology, Liberation Biology, which was very kind of him. And we were talking when he was doing the blurb, and I asked him about The End of Nature and asked, “So now what’s your view about genetically modified crops?” And he said, “I don’t think about that anymore.”
Yale Forum: You think a lot about how science is packaged and spun. For example, your 2012 article titled “Everyone Freaks Out about Two New Climate Change Studies.” Do you feel that science is being overhyped everywhere, on all sides?
Ron Bailey: You do see that. I know there must be knockdown, drag-out fights among physicists over string theory. But you don’t see Paul Ryan [R-Wis] or Nancy Pelosi [D-Ca] opining about quantum mechanics, because it doesn’t have any policy implications. The problem right now in modern, liberal, democratic societies like the United States is that we no longer trust figures of authority like we used to. We don’t trust religious figures, we don’t trust politicians. So the only thing we have left to say is that studies are on my side, or science is on my side. What you end up with is that in any argument people say science is on their side; it’s the only supposedly objective standard left for claiming authority. But by doing so, you’ve completely politicized one of the most important features of liberal, democratic societies, which is objective science.
Let me give you an example. I was extremely disheartened about the controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and natural gas. I didn’t really have an opinion about it, but I started reporting and looking at studies. My confirmation bias being what it is, I looked at it and couldn’t see any problems with it. You have this incredibly dishonest documentary called “Gasland” out there, where you have this guy lighting his faucet on fire supposedly because you have a fracked well coming into his water well. It’s not true, it’s flat-out false. What I noticed was that the environmental movement decided it did not like natural gas because it was undermining the competitive position of solar and wind power, which are their preferred sources of energy ….
What you started to see were hastily thrown-together estimates, some out of Cornell, some out of Duke, that allegedly showed there were environmental problems with fracking. These studies helped back a particular political point of view. But if you go into those studies, I would argue, they are incredibly thin, very badly done …. It occurs to me that you see this a lot now: Whenever an issue gets political salience, six months later you see a bunch of studies proving that whatever the ideological environmentalists have decided to go after is the case. I think this is a terrible problem with science. There are so many areas of science that have been politicized. Again, it is being used as a supposedly objective standard to support the policies you already prefer for other reasons. It happens on the left and on the right, and it really bugs me.