A Free-Market Energy Blog

Jerry Taylor: Old vs. New (what would Bill Niskanen say?)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- April 1, 2015

Jerry Taylor has written a lawyer’s brief for climate alarmism and open-ended forced energy transformation via the tax code. Might he like to demolish his new ideas in a second White Paper–“The Libertarian Case Against ‘The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax'”? It is in his head and can be put on paper–if his emotions can get out of the way.

The intellectual case for government control of greenhouse gas emissions–the all-in cause of the anti-industrial neo-Malthusians–has always been suspect, not unlike earlier man-versus-earth outcries. But climate alarm has become weaker since its heyday (1988–98) for several reasons.

First, temperature rise has slowed significantly in the last 18 years (the warming “pause” or “hiatus“). Second, sensitivity estimates have been coming down toward long-held “skeptic” levels. Third, “fat tail” extreme-warming scenarios for risk analysis are under  assault. Fourth, hurricanes and other major alleged indicators of climate change do not indicate alarm.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels have solidified their competitive position in the energy mix for many decades to come, and nuclear (the one mass carbon-free energy source to compete against oil, gas, and coal, at least in electricity markets) remains economically unreliable (think Plant Vogtle). Meanwhile, too, global carbon dioxide (CO2) atmospheric concentrations have continued to rise, making a reversal of the human influence on climate less possible (the logarithmic positive correlation between greenhouse-gas forcing and temperature).

The game is not about ‘saving the planet’; it is rent-seeking in the name of saving the planet for crony scientists, crony capitalists, and government and NGO hangers-on aplenty. “Stabilizing climate” is more quixotic and wasteful than ever. And as the modern linchpin of the interventionist state, and the anti-capitalist mentality, climate control must be fought on every intellectual and public policy front. [1]

The Cato Institute has been a consistent, scholarly voice for free-market energy policies for thirty years, beginning in part with my adjunct work for Cato in the 1980s and accelerating with the hiring of Jerry Taylor as Director, Natural Resource Studies, in the early 1990s. [2] Cato has advanced climate/energy realism against  climate alarmism/forced energy transformation ever since. The case for private property rights and voluntary exchange has held up well against the hyper-fears of resource depletion and man-made climate change.

But while Cato has taken the lead in the climate science side with their Center for the Study of Science, led by Patrick Michaels and Chip Knappenberger, Cato’s formerly rock-solid Taylor has adopted a new brand of analysis, in order to financially father and differentiate in terms of policy his new think tank: the Niskanen Center, via his new essay, “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax” (note that it was not titled “A Libertarian Case for a Carbon Tax”–perhaps a requirement from his funders).

Taylor’s buy-in to climate alarmism (“the risks imposed by climate change are real, and a policy of ignoring those risks and hoping for the best is inconsistent with risk management”) and surrender (“costly and economically inefficient command-and-control greenhouse gas regulations are firmly entrenched in law, and there is no plausible scenario in which they can be removed by conservative political force”) is the antithesis of libertarian scholarship in the climate/energy field, not to mention libertarian advocacy and spirit. Long gone are Taylor’s old arguments of the positive benefits of CO2 and climate change, whether in the physical-science literature  or in the climate-economics literature (Robert Mendelsohn in particular).

Taylor’s lawyer’s brief for climate-policy activism–one that most of us could have written if we role-played the opposition–also violates the spirit and memory of William Niskanen, who never bought into climate alarmism/forced energy transformation–and who was not interested in second-best in this area.

Niskanen understood the politics of the climate issue and motivations of the other side and was not about to let a theoretical ideal about controlling real pollutants (choosing taxation over command-and-control) change his views about carbon dioxide. That Taylor is using climate advocacy to fund his new center is a double whammy to Niskanen’s memory. The Niskanen Center should be renamed. And “libertarian” should be taken out of its descriptive and promotional material for so long as climate alarmism/forced energy transformation is atop the masthead.

There is much more to be said about Taylor’s new writings in this area, including his advocacy of secondary interventions to address industry escaping from CO2 unfriendly jurisdictions (“some of the revenue from a domestic carbon tax could be rebated to domestic industries most heavily impacted by leakage”) and a  tariff regime to penalize countries (there are 195 of them) without a carbon tax or with too low a tax (“charges could be imposed on imported goods ….”). Breathtaking! What Taylor devotes a sentence to each involves reams of subjective, political micro intervention to rescue the initial intervention.

Taylor on Kyoto (and CO2 Regulation in General)

Taylor’s case for global governance of CO2 must be challenged on two levels, the fundamentals and the specifics. Key questions must be debated, not assumed, and that can begin with the old, unsullied, Jerry Taylor.

And here he is writing about the Kyoto Protocol–and invoking the common-sense wisdom of the late chairman of Cato, no less.

As Cato Institute chairman William Niskanen has noted, for any international action to merit support, all of the following propositions must be proven true: 

(1) A continued increase in the emission of greenhouse gases will increase global temperature. 

(2) An increase in average temperature will generate more costs than benefits. 

(3) Emissions controls are the most efficient means to prevent an increase in global temperature. 

(4) Early measures to control emissions are superior to later measures. 

(5) Emissions controls can be effectively monitored and enforced. 

(6) Governments of the treaty countries will approve the necessary control measures. 

(7) Controlling emissions is compatible with a modern economy.  

The case for any one of those statements is surprisingly weak. The case for a global warming treaty, which depends on the accuracy of all those statements, is shockingly weak.

 Taylor concludes: 

There is no compelling need to act now. According to a recent study by Wigley et al. in Nature, waiting more than twenty years before taking action to limit anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions would result in only about a .2 degree Celsius temperature increase spread out over a one hundred year period. 

Why might we want to wait a couple of decades before acting? First, we might profitably “look before we leap.” There are a tremendous number of uncertainties that still need to be settled before we can be reasonably sure that action is warranted. Second, we cannot anticipate what sorts of technological advances might occur in the intervening period that might allow far more efficient and less costly control or mitigation strategies than those before us today.

Given the low cost of waiting, it would seem only prudent to continue to try to answer the open questions about climate change before making major changes to Western civilization. 

Jerry Taylor has written a lawyer’s brief for climate alarmism and open-ended forced energy transformation via the tax code. Might he now demolish his new ideas in a second White Paper–“The Libertarian Case Against ‘The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax'”? It is in his head and can be put on paper–if his emotions can get out of the way.


[1] Central collectivist economic planning is intellectually dead, leaving climate planning as the new government frontier.

[2] I signed my contract  with Cato to write what became Oil, Gas, and Government: The U.S. Experience in 1981 and became an adjunct scholar there in 1986. The appointments of Robert Michaels and Richard Gordon as adjunct scholars in the 1990s, under Taylor’s direction, enhanced Cato’s energy and energy/environmental analysis.


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