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William Niskanen on Climate Change: Part VI, Conclusion, Postscript

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 21, 2018

“Some organizations and governments now appear likely to endorse an abatement strategy, largely for symbolic reasons, a strategy that will prove to be both costly and ineffective…. Until there is much better and broader understanding of this issue, a rush to judgement on the optimal response to the increase in global temperature is the greater danger.”

– William Niskanen, 2008

[Editor note: This completes a six-part series on the climate views of the late William Niskanen, taken from his Fall 1997 symposium essay, “Too Much, Too Soon: Is a Global Warming Treaty a Rush to Judgment?” as well as his 2008 postscript. Previous posts are:

  1. Part I: Key Questions
  2. Part II: Physical Science
  3. Part III: Moderate Warming Scenario
  4. Part IV: Why Regulate?
  5. Part V: Mitigation Issues


Conclusion (1997)

Scientists have been correct to alert political officials about the possibility that a continued increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide may increase average global temperatures.  However, many political officials have overreacted to this warning and many scientists have themselves been swept up in this momentum. 

As suggested by Nordhaus, some short-term actions are likely to be valuable: continuing to improve the information base; reorienting technological priorities somewhat; and implementing a few “no-regret” policies.  Too many scientific, economic, and political issues remain to be resolved, however, to support an early international commitment to control the emission of greenhouse gases.  A global warming treaty in the next decade or so would be a rush to judgment.


Postscript (2008)

…. There has been a rush to judgment, unfortunately, that abatement of carbon dioxide emissions is the optimal strategy to reduce the prospect of a continued increase in average world temperatures. For an abatement strategy to be optimal, however, the following conditions must apply:

  • An increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is the primary cause of the increase in global temperatures,
  • An international treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions must include the governments of all nations that are major emitters, regardless of their level of economic development,
  • A violation in the terms of such a treaty can be identified and would (somehow) be enforced, and
  • An abatement strategy is more efficient than any alternative strategy.

There has not been sufficient attention, however, to two other strategies:

  1. Geoengineering approaches to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth would not be dependent on knowing the primary cause of temperature increase, would require an international agreement only on cost sharing, and may be more efficient than an abatement strategy.
  2. An adaptation strategy should also not be dependent on knowing the cause of the temperature increase, would allow every family, firm, and government to choose an adaptation option that best serves its own interests, would not require an international agreement to be effective, and may be more efficient that either an abatement or geoengineering strategy.

Some organizations and governments now appear likely to endorse an abatement strategy, largely for symbolic reasons, a strategy that will prove to be both costly and ineffective. My judgement is that most of the world will implicitly endorse an adaptation strategy for the next decade or so, at least until the nature and magnitude of the prospective temperature increase and the most efficient form of any collective response is much clearer than it now the case.

Until there is much better and broader understanding of this issue, a rush to judgement on the optimal response to the increase in global temperature is the greater danger.


Bill Niskanen’s geoengineering alternative has not gained traction within the activist community for two reasons. First, it would allow, to some degree or another, business-as-usual fossil-fuel usage. The obstructionists want natural gas, coal, and oil in the ground, not “corrected” in the air.

Second, geoengineering is untried and highly uncertain. From a free-market vantage point, Niskanen erred by giving it an economic pass, only comparing it to the other option of abatement/mitigation.

Niskanen’s preferred option–and the right one–is adaptation. Wealth is health, as the free-market environmentalists have taught. So not only should the US not regulate in the all-pain-no-gain quest for “climate stability,” other countries should reform toward private property, voluntary exchange, and the rule of law. Robert Mendelsohn’s work in the 1990s on the social impacts of climate change, in fact, found that free-market reliance was key for a nation to benefit from or reduce the negatives from climate change.

Niskanen lives!


  1. Rob Bradley  

    Randall O’Toole of Cato set the record straight on Taylor and Niskanen on climate change back in the Cato days here, https://i2i.org/swift-condemnation-boulder-climate-lawsuit-and-dc-think-tank/

    “Bill Niskanen was an economist whose research and writings were based on his years of observations of government follies. Among other things, he realized that bureaucrats were strongly motivated by their budgets, such that the missions of major government agencies could get turned 180 degrees if their budgets gave them incentives to do so.

    The Niskanen Center, which is named for him, provides a perfect example. According to Robert Bradley Jr., who worked for the Cato Institute on energy issues in the 1980s, Niskanen “never bought into climate alarmism.” Yet today the center created in his name has joined with other climate alarmists to demand that oil companies “be held accountable for climate change.”

    “As Cato Institute chairman William Niskanen has noted,” observed Cato Institute senior fellow Jerry Taylor in 1998, when the Kyoto Treaty was being debated, “the case for a global warming treaty is shockingly weak.” Yet that same Jerry Taylor today is the one who, in Niskanen’s name, is leading the charge against the oil companies.

    If you believe that anthropogenic climate change is a serious crisis, then a carbon tax such as that advocated by the Niskanen Center may be the best solution. But the chain of reasoning leading to that conclusion is at least as weak today as it was in 1998.

    And if that case is weak, the case for placing the blame on the oil companies is even weaker, especially since the benefits of mobility and other petroleum uses were enjoyed by everyone in the developed world. It appears that, for whatever reason, Taylor has gone from promoting a questionable policy of carbon taxes to one that is unquestionably foolish, which is to blame oil companies for the alleged consequences of oil we all used.”


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