Why shouldn’t the government, with all its resources, take a much more active role in finding a solution—like, say, funding a research scheme along the lines of the Manhattan project, as many commentators have suggested?And
Oh, God, the last thing you want is for the government to try to figure out a solution! What the government needs to do is price the problem. In economics, greenhouse gases are a free good, there’s no cost involved in emitting them, so no one has any profit incentive to reduce the emissions. Government needs to create a framework in which a price is attached to the emission of greenhouse gases. The creation of a price will in turn allow people to make a profit by finding the solution. And once people have a profit incentive you’re going to find a huge outpouring of creativity on the part of engineers coming up with technical ideas and business people coming up with entrepreneurial ideas. But the last thing you want is for government to try to pick winners and losers in an industry.
I’d like to read you a quote. “Oh, so Mother Nature needs a favor? Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys. Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she’s losing. Well I say, hard cheese.” That’s from Montgomery Burns, on The Simpsons. I’m inclined to agree with him: don’t you think it’s about time Mother Nature got a taste of her own medicine?
Well, it’s a common fallacy in modern thought to romanticize the natural condition as one that’s benign and blissful. My 1994 book, A Moment on the Earth, has a couple of chapters on the fallacies of our romanticization of nature. Nature is physically beautiful. There are a lot of glorious places in the world that are wonderful to hike and just stand in awe. But from our standpoint and our ancestors’ standpoint, nature is a killing machine that we’ve spent thousands of years trying to defeat. Especially disease, which kills far more human beings than war and violence combined. But not just disease—natural disasters also have killed far more human beings than war and violence combined ever have. We’ve seen them recently in the Indonesian tsunami, but also all kinds of other natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions et cetera, and climate change itself—which wiped out most of the life on earth at the beginning of the most recent ice age.
Mmm .. cake.
If I have a political philosophy it's best described as pragmatic: It might be against your personal philosophy or your notions of 'the right way of doing things' but ... do what works. If evidence shows that the government is lousy at something then it's really dumb to insist that it Really Should Do Something because it's the Right Thing To Do.
So, yes, set up incentives and then get out of the way. Please.