Although Mitt’s tax returns and Barack’s spend-opoly currently occupy the mind of the average voter, climate change is ever-present in the background. According to a recent poll from the Brookings Institute, an increasing share of Americans accept that man-made climate change is occurring, and mandatory action must be taken to curb greenhouse gases. If anthropogenic global warming is in fact a reality, as 62% of Americans believe, attention to the issue will only increase as signs of heating become evident on the planet. But what, exactly, are the consequences of a do-nothing policy? Scientists and pundits alike typically cite a laundry list of consequences for Mother Earth, not limited to biodiversity loss, heat waves, infectious disease outbreaks, water stress, and sea level increases. While the right typically accuses the left of alarmism over global warming, conservatives and libertarians have an unfortunate tendency to embrace denialism and confusion. A common refrain from those on the right has been the “Climategate” scandal. Paul Ryan, for example, rails against attempts by leading climatologists to use “statistical tricks to distort their findings and intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” While it may be politically expedient to use juicy, leaked emails by the Climate Research Unit to allege a conspiracy among researchers, a National Science Foundation investigation found there was little truth to the allegations. Skeptics, however, have a larger problem on their hands: leading scientific organizations from a variety of disciplines have arrived at a conclusion opposite to theirs. What, then, is the proper free-market response to a problem that is collective in nature and seems to promise substantial harm?
If we examine the list of maladies brought on by climate change, we discover a pattern: their occurrences becomes rarer as countries become wealthier. Malaria, for instance, may spread faster as the thermometer trends up, but this trend can be reversed if the victim nations grow richer. Indeed, researchers from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association found, “If income were just 1% higher in the 100 countries of the sample, 603,189 cases of malaria could be averted annually.” We can observe the same phenomenon for natural disaster deaths. Leading environmental economics expert Matthew Kahn concludes, “In the face of an equal quantity and quality of shocks as poorer nations, richer nations suffer less death from natural disasters.” Kahn, in the course of his work, uncovers a shocking statistic: in the period between 1985 and 1999, 65% of natural disaster fatalities were in countries with a per-capita income below $760. Even though researchers Kellenberg and Mobarak differ slightly from Kahn, they note an, “emerging consensus in both academic and policy circles on the monotonic negative relationship between development and disaster damages.”
“What about massive heat waves?” you might ask. The 2003 European heat wave comes to mind; more than 70,000 people perished in this summer calamity. Luckily, extreme temperature-related mortality has been examined at length by Olivier Deschenes and Enrico Moretti in The Review of Economics and Statistics. While heat waves claim their fair share of victims, the initial spike in death is offset by a subsequent plunge in the mortality hazard. The typical swelter, which has “no lasting impact” on mortality, is contrasted with the “significant and long-lasting impact” of freezing temperatures. Deschenes and Moretti also study the increase in US longevity over the past three decades, and conclude that migration toward the South played a role by decreasing exposure to the cold. The magical phenomenon known as “wealth” also makes a difference, as technological innovations make heat-related misery a thing of the past. Author Stan Cox documents in Losing Our Cool how air conditioning sparked productivity in the miserable, uninhabitable South, and made early business closures a thing of the past. Scorching heat may make life more difficult for the residents of India and China, but the rapidly rising consumption of ACs will ensure that they enjoy Western-style relief at work and at home.
Though wealth and innovation alleviate human suffering, biodiversity threats and mass extinction must also be addressed. As the only species capable of reason and deep-seated thought, humans have an obligation to abide by the Boy Scout pledge of leaving the world a better place. Whilst many see climate change as a catalyst for ecological destruction, a larger menace is overpopulation. Indeed, a studied featured in the journal Biological Conservation concluded, “Human population density predicted with 88-percent accuracy the number of endangered birds and mammals.” Thankfully, national income growth and development triggers a decline in population growth rate, in a well-known phenomenon dubbed the “demographiceconomic paradox.” Karan Singh, who previously served as India’s minister of population, famously noted, “Development is the best contraceptive.” Large-scale global trends, however, must be complemented by wildlife protection resources; such funds were crucial to the rebound of the American Bison population. In a stunning analysis, conservation scientist Oliver Pergrams finds that top predictors of conservation activity included GDP, personal income, and stock market index values. Most surprising, however, was that funding for organizations like the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund were tightly related to corporate income. Given the rise of multinationals in developing nations, and the decline in global birthrates, animal and plant life is in a unique position to flourish.
The intricate link between wealth, ecosystem health, and human well-being should be instructive, as liberty-lovers try to make sense of the climate change issue. With a new, confident strain of libertarian environmentalism, free-marketers can approach global warming with sobriety and empiricism. As our global supply of fossil fuels slowly tapers off, renewable energy will inevitably have its golden day. The laissez-faire approach, though, emphasizes gradual replacement by market forces, as opposed to rash governmental action. The latter, which threatens to bury the third-world in cost increases and radical readjustment schemes, can only reduce wealth and prosperity. By allowing African and Asian industries to utilize cheap and abundant sources of energy, ambitious locals have a chance to realize their potential and prosper. This narrative of hope, coupled with ecological and humanitarian progress, has promise to unite the left and right on the most pressing issue of our time.