The Independent Institute


Three Times Interventionists Moved the Goalposts, Part 2

Part 2 of 3

In a previous Beacon post, I explained that interventionists had often “moved the goalposts” in policy debates in which I’d participated. I specifically recounted an episode where Paul Krugman had moved the goalposts in a dispute over so-called fiscal austerity.

In the present post, I’ll focus on an example from the climate-change policy debate. As I stressed in Part 1 of this series, I don’t mean to suggest that only interventionists use this frustrating debate tactic. But since they often declare themselves to be more scientific and rational than their opponents, it is particularly useful to document the examples in this 3-part series.

Episode #2: Basing Climate Policy on the Peer-Reviewed “Consensus” Science

It is well established in the debates over climate change that people who question the orthodox views are denounced as “deniers.” The United Nations publishes a periodic report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that codifies the latest peer-reviewed results so that the public and policymakers can be informed by the genuine scientific consensus, rather than using cherry-picked authors or studies to justify their preconceived political views.

It’s also well established in the debates over climate change that the bare minimum humanity must do, is to take steps to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, the Paris Agreement (out of which President Trump recently pulled the United States) had, as its central component, a goal for all the participating nations of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels...”

With this as context, you may be amazed to learn that I used the most recent IPCC publications to make a strong case that the economic costs of limiting global warming to 2°C would exceed the benefits of avoided climate-change damages. In other words, using the UN’s own published summaries of the latest and most reputable literature on the costs and benefits of climate change policies, I was able to make a case that the 2°C ceiling would be a cure worse than the disease.

You don’t need to take my word for it. William Nordhaus, one of the pioneers in the economics of climate change and creator of one of the computer models used by the Obama administration’s task force on the “social cost of carbon,” has said that, “The scientific rationale for the 2°C target is not really very scientific.” In a world of perfect enforcement by governments around the world, Nordhaus thinks an optimal carbon tax would end up allowing some 2.3°C of warming, and if we take into account realistic limitations on government action, a more plausible target is closer to 4°C of allowed warming.

Now notice in my argument here that I am not “denying climate change” nor even using alternative modeling groups or rogue scientists. I am literally quoting from the UN’s own published documents and from a carbon-tax supporter whom the Obama administration acknowledged as an expert in the field.

Yet when I bring up these inconvenient truths, climate-change alarmists certainly don’t say, “Wow! You did exactly what we told you to do; you got your data from the latest IPCC report. Maybe the 2°C ceiling isn’t the slam dunk we’ve been confidently telling people.”

No, on the contrary I hear a combination of angry denunciations, plus an exasperated admission that the economic models leave out a lot of the problems associated with climate change. Some people will admit that the “median” projections might not justify the policies on a cost/benefit basis, but they nonetheless support them as analogous to insurance and push them as a way to minimize the chance of (unlikely) catastrophe.

Here again, it’s not that what the climate-change activists are saying is (by itself) an unreasonable claim. But I never heard all of the weaknesses of the UN’s published summaries of the peer-reviewed literature until I started pointing out that the UN documents didn’t support the mainstream policies advanced in the name of fighting climate change.


Thus we see how interventionists moved the goalposts in the climate policy debate. In the next and final installment of this series, we’ll see a similar move when it comes to discussing Oregon’s Medicaid experiment.

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For more on economic theory and public policy, see Choice: Competition, Enterprise, and Human Action, by Robert P. Murphy.

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