Romm’s Factually Challenged Smear of Conservatives

Joseph Romm asserts:

Goklany’s core point: the classic disingenuous conservative argument that there are better things to spend money on than climate mitigation. This argument assumes 1) there isn’t enough money to do everything whose benefits exceed their cost and 2) conservatives would actually support things like government-funded efforts to deal with “hunger, malaria, unsafe water, and other poverty related problems.”

I worry a lot about those problems and think we should be spending a lot more money on them. I have no doubt we would be spending a lot more money on poverty-related problems if it weren’t for conservatives and libertarians in Congress and the White House who consistently oppose such efforts and cut funding for such programs.

Mr. Romm labels me a conservative — well, if being concerned about human well-being is conservative, I plead guilty, although I’m probably worse: I’m more libertarian than conservative.  No matter, let’s move to more substantive matters.

First, no one is against spending on actions if benefits exceed costs. Read my original post, Mr. Romm.  It says, “… mitigation (and R&D to expand mitigation options) makes sense so long as its implementation is neither mandatory nor subsidized… ” What this means in plain English is that mitigation makes sense so long as benefits exceed costs (because if they didn’t, one wouldn’t need mandates or subsidies).  In fact, my conclusions are entirely founded on the principle that benefits should exceed costs. I don’t assume that there are better things to spend money on than aggressive mitigation; I prove it in my original post. The problem for Mr. Romm is that most economic analyses of climate change show that benefits don’t exceed costs for aggressive mitigation (see Manzi’s comments, for instance).  And it seems that even the Yohe et al. study he cites also recommends relatively modest mitigation (coupled with adaptation and R&D).

Second, Mr. Romm smears conservatives with the factually challenged implication that conservatives don’t actually support efforts to deal with hunger, malaria, unsafe water, and other poverty-related problems, and that conservatives and libertarians “consistently oppose such efforts and cut funding for such programs.”

What are the facts?

This is what the conservative Washington Post, said in an editorial titled, “Spreading Hope,” on 17 August 2008:

IN HIS 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush surprised many when he proposed to take the fight against AIDS to Africa. At the time, slowing the spread of the disease seemed quixotic, particularly on a continent where only about 50,000 of the 30 million infected people received antiretroviral treatment. But Mr. Bush’s proposed “work of mercy beyond all current international efforts” has had a profound impact. After five years and $15 billion, 1.7 million people are receiving treatment. Encouraged by the progress, countries in sub-Saharan Africa have spent more of their own money to combat HIV-AIDS. The disease still ravages millions of Africans, but it is no longer an automatic death sentence.

On July 30, Mr. Bush signed into law a bill that would triple funding for programs that fight HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The bill also repealed a ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants to the United States. Unfortunately, key congressional subcommittees have approved funding at levels below those set in the bill.

And here’s a report from the conservative New York Times:

Under Mr. Bush, aid to Africa has risen to more than twice the level of any previous administration and more than triple that achieved during the Clinton administration, according to an analysis by the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

The New York Times could also have added that since the U.S. no longer precludes use of its funds for procuring DDT — the most cost-effective malarial control in many situations — these funds also go farther.

One of the secrets about malaria and hunger is that while many have been obsessing over climate change supposedly in part because it might contribute to hunger and malaria (among other things), conservatives and libertarians have been in the forefront of battling these very problems worldwide. They played a big part in ensuring that environmental groups did not use the Stockholm Convention to preclude the use of DDT to combat public health problems, and in getting the World Health Organization to actively support its use for malaria control. Similarly, conservatives and libertarians are pushing to remove the stigma on biotechnology and genetically modified crops that retards progress on better feeding the world more fully and more nutritiously with fewer chemicals and pesticides and less disturbance of soil (which, in fact, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions).  Moreover, such crops can be the basis for adapting agriculture to climate change, which is necessary if we are to contain hunger in the future. (See The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, Chapter 9).

Also, I find curious Mr. Romm’s suggestion that programs to deal with hunger, malaria, and other poverty-related problems should have to be “government-funded.” Why is it necessary that these efforts be government-funded?  In fact, the most successful poverty reduction programs have involved not government funding, but government loosening its grip on the economy, that is, less government intrusion. Mainly because of economic growth, the proportion of the developing world’s population living in absolute poverty (that is, subsisting on a dollar a day), declined from 52% in 1981 to 26% in 2005. (See this World Bank report.)

China is the prime example. Despite population growth, there were 600 million fewer Chinese living in absolute poverty (based on consumption) in 2005 compared to 1981, largely due to double-digit economic growth year after year, unleashed by the partial liberalization of its economy starting in 1979. And, yes, its economic growth was fueled by fossil fuels. By contrast, despite spending over $2 trillion in 5 decades, aid programs have much less to show in terms of poverty reduction — or its ancillary benefits, e.g., reductions in hunger, disease, better health care and education, and greater adaptive capacity to deal with climate change and natural disasters — than does fossil fuel-powered economic development.

It does no good to “worry a lot about these problems and think we should be spending a lot more money on them” so long as one insists on grand but ineffective gestures, such as aggressive mitigation and government-funded programs, when cheaper, quicker, and more effective remedies are available and can be implemented immediately even as we prepare for the future.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • The prospect of potentially catastrophic global warming forces us to make decisions under extreme uncertainty. Yet, Jim Manzi writes, “Despite the rhetoric, the best available estimate of the damage we face from unconstrained global warming is not ‘global destruction,’ but is instead costs on the order of 3 percent of global GDP in a much wealthier world well over a hundred years from now.” Manzi explores how best to evaluate the costs of greenhouse gas abatement on the present-day economy when compared to the long-term benefits of avoiding global warming. He concludes that there are very few benefits from these steps.

Response Essays

  • American Progress Senior Fellow Joseph Romm argues that atmospheric CO2 has already reached an unacceptable level, and that urgent action is needed in the next few years. Fortunately, this action need not involve prohibitive costs. Indeed, many possible options for greenhouse gas abatement will result in economic benefits.

    These changes are desperately needed, too, before global warming reaches a tipping point beyond which the carbon sequestered in permafrost is also released into the atmosphere, aggravating the problem. Should we fail to act, widespread desertification, massive species extinction, and other catastrophic events are predicted, even by authorities whom Jim Manzi also accepts.

  • Indur Goklany argues, in response to Jim Manzi and Joseph Romm, that solving the likely problems resulting from global warming will be both cheaper and more effective than any global response aimed at stabilizing or changing the climate itself. Harm reduction will also pay important dividends regardless of the degree of global warming, since it will include the development of new treatments for diseases, better flood protection, improved crops, and general economic advancements for the developing world. When taken together, these factors will help us to face any global warming scenario effectively, and they will also offer even larger benefits outside any considerations of climate.

  • Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus describe what they see as a significant political realignment: Both left and right, they claim, are converging on a state-sponsored and technology-based solution to global warming, one that will emphasize clean energy and/or carbon sequestration technologies. They argue that the debate about climate modeling is largely irrelevant and/or unproductive, because these technologies are generally agreed to be important in their own right and to have positive economic effects regardless of the degree of severity of global warming. They call on policymakers to embrace a large-scale, state-funded effort to achieve these breakthrough technologies and argue that state sponsorship for technological advancement is, historically speaking, the engine of much progress and innovation. This, they argue, is a reason to embrace the same approach with regard to global warming.