Why I’m a Climate Hawk

A few people have asked me why I care about climate.  Why get worked up, they ask, about something that won’t get really bad until after I’m dead?  The question’s a bit confusing for me, because my concern is motivated by the same basic values I think drive most Americans to do what we do—and they have little to do with rational self-interest.

Here are the five reasons I’m a climate hawk:

5. Property rights – If I were to sit in my yard and spray a garden hose through your window into your house, you would have every right to be mad at me.  You would even have the right to ask the government to make me stop.  Why?  Because I’d be violating your property. By the same token, factories that burn fossil fuels dump carbon dioxide into my atmosphere, and the resultant climate disruption will damage property values worldwide, whether beaches swamped by rising seas or farmland turned to desert.  It seems reasonable that property owners and air breathers should have a say in whether polluters can dump pollution onto their property—or at least to have polluters compensate them for damages.  (Credit to Matt Yglesias for the garden hose analogy)

4. Markets – I have no doubt in the market’s almost endless ability to produce innovation in response to changes in the business environment—including changes such as a price on carbon. Where bureaucrats see barriers, innovators and entrepreneurs see opportunity, inventing previously unimagined solutions to get around these barriers—as long as the market tells them there’s profit to be had.  The problem is, when the dominant players are permitted to dump climate-disrupting pollution onto other people’s property for free, it allows them to charge artificially lower prices for their products, undercutting innovative startups’ ability to challenge their dominance. That’s why I support pricing carbon properly to allow the market to do its work.

3. America – America doesn’t need a permission slip from other countries to do what’s right.  That’s why I’m tired of Negative Nancys saying we should wait around for other countries to do something about climate before we do anything ourselves.  Since when does America base its actions on what Tuvalu does?  Being a leader means taking personal responsibility to do what’s right, whether or not others follow—and if you’re a strong enough leader, others will follow.   So when I hear pessimists saying America should just wuss out on climate and let developing countries take the lead, it makes me think, these ostensible patriots must not think America has much left to say on the world stage.

2. Jobs – The engine of job creation isn’t just small business—it’s new business.  Research cited in the Wall Street Journal shows that nearly all jobs created in the US since 1980 were in firms younger than 5 years old; more recent NBER studies confirm this.  But since few new firms turn a profit in their early years, tax rates have almost nothing to do with their success.  This means that the best way to create jobs isn’t by cutting taxes, but rather by removing barriers to entry for new firms, as well as challenging existing players to do more with what they have (especially when big firms are sitting on $1 trillion of idle cash).  Carbon pricing, loan guarantees for clean energy and efficiency, and other common sense solutions would create markets for new firms to enter, and give existing companies the certainty they need to launch new business units.  And this means jobs—real jobs, making stuff, not just sticking our hands in the next guy’s pocket.

1. Personal responsibility – While I certainly believe that addressing climate disruption makes both patriotic and economic sense, that’s not what this issue ultimately boils down to.  For me, it’s a simple issue of personal responsibility – and personal responsibility doesn’t go away when we walk into our place of business.  I’m all for pursuing our individual self-interest, as long as we play within the rules of the game.  At the very least, that means not pillaging what belongs to others as we go about our business.  This is true from the mundane to the cosmic.  If I deplete the last of the office coffee, it’s my responsibility to renew that resource by putting on a new pot for others to enjoy (even if that coffee is a crude black sludge that people only drink because Starbucks is more expensive and a little farther away).  Likewise, as a Christian, I was always taught that we’re to be responsible stewards of the earth God has given us—to work, care for, and preserve its resources, not to plunder, deplete, and move on.  To do the latter is the way of the locust, and Biblically speaking, we call that a plague.

Those are my reasons.  What are yours?

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