Last week I heard a sermon on climate change (no, it was an actual sermon). I’m roughly agnostic on the existence and degree of climate change, but I err on the side of assuming it is a large problem of externalities with no obvious property rights solution and will have costs. And I think that under those assumptions there is an important moral element to it. With that in mind, below are some of my thoughts on the weak points of the sermon:
1) Authority is only a starting point; we cannot defer ultimate responsibility to authority. If an expert or someone I trust tells me something about X, and I don’t have any prior knowledge about X, then I believe them. In the case of global warming there are two basic sorts of information you will get from information: a) diagnosis (temperatures could rise X degrees in the coming century), and b) prescription.
The climatology involved in a) is well above my pay grade, and so rather than undergo the costs of informing myself on the existence or importance of climate change, I just figure the truth is somewhere in the middle of what reasonably informed people say and instead focus my effort on my areas of comparative advantage. Now the actions in b) are typically about reducing waste and that’s well within the realm of economic thinking, so I’ll comment on that!
1b) Blindly deferring to authority to assuage your guilt is wrong and bad. Someone says you should drive an electric care to save the environment? Don’t do it before thinking through the matter, this is a big decision for most people. Where’s the energy coming from to power that car? (Coal. That is burned hundreds of miles away from your car… that’s like having a car with a hundred mile long drive shaft.) How much energy and material does it take to make the car? (Hint: look at prices.)
2) It’s called climate change, not climate universal and uniform worsening. If climate change means a warmer climate for Canada and Russia, that will come with extended growing seasons and savings on winter heating costs. Burma? It’s probably going to suffer a lot. Climate change will surely have the biggest impact on the poorest people in the world, and this is where I see the real moral issue because…
3) We can respond to climate change in a way to reduce suffering. Specifically, we can open borders. First off, that would increase human well being, with an enormous benefit to the world’s poorest people. Second, the effects of climate change won’t harm the poor as much as they could. Is climate change still a bad thing if we do this? Sure, but if a building is burning, why not help people get out?
Should I recycle everything? Only if it will actually help. Recycled aluminum is chemically identical to virgin aluminum and uses fewer resources to produce (which is why it’s cheaper!). Recycling paper creates a lower quality product, uses a lot of energy and creates pollution.
Paper bags are brown, that’s good, right? Plastic bags are almost ethereal; they use a fraction of the material per unit of carrying capacity resulting in big savings. Yes, there are offsetting costs to using plastic, but it isn’t as simple as “this brown, it must be natural and therefore good!” And while we’re on the topic, brown M&Ms are stupid. There’s a layer of white sugar between that brown outer layer and the actually brown chocolate. Brown M&Ms are as unnatural as any of the other colors.
Should I buy local? Maybe if you live in California, but not if you live in Massachusetts. The biggest environmental impact of food is growing it; plowing fields, planting, watering (outside where the water could just evaporate!), and harvesting use a lot more energy than transportation. So if you live in a place with poor growing conditions, then buying local only does more harm. That said, fresh food tastes better, so by all means pay the cost if you value the flavor, just don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re reducing energy usage by doing so.
Consider opportunity cost and present value! So you’ve got a solar panel and now electricity is free for the next 20-30 years! Or you’ve installed new modern insulation for your home. Or you bought a car that costs less to run (and you’ve promised not to increase your usage). But at what cost? If your solar panel used 40 years worth of energy to build and install, then you’ve done more harm than good. And you’ve done that harm upfront. Even if one of these investments has a positive return (it saves more resources than it uses), you should still consider whether it’s a good investment. We don’t have unlimited resources, and that means that if you spend $10,000 on insulation that will give you a 0.4% ROI then you’ve given up the chance to invest that money into something that will generate more good.