Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Nature Knows Best on Global Warming?

Written by johnleemk on 1:13:29 am Sep 12, 2007.
Categories: ,

One frequent argument I run into from people who oppose any sort of regulation of carbon dioxide pollution, or who believe that global warming is a hoax, is that nature knows best.

Well, not necessarily nature per se — sometimes the spectre of God is invoked. But in any case, this argument is really easily boiled down into a brief sentence.

If what we've been told about global warming is true, says this argument, then doesn't that mean God created mankind as a bunch of polluters, since we all emit carbon dioxide?

This is, in essence, an argument from absurdity — reductio ad absurdum — whereby an assertion is rephrased in such a way to point out some apparent absurd flaw in it.

The absurdity, though, is all in our heads. Yes, God created us as polluters — and there's nothing wrong with that. He created the law of entropy, which basically guarantees that all of his biological creations will leave the universe a worser place when they die than it was when they were born. (Unless we're in the business of denying the laws of physics now, it's pretty difficult to argue against entropy.)

By way of analogy, God has also created us all as poisoners. You see, a lot of things we emit are poisonous — carbon dioxide is fatal, hydrogen and nitrogen can be fatal, even oxygen may be fatal in large enough amounts.

This just is not a valid argument against global warming. It's completely ridiculous. Yet it persists, sometimes in slightly altered forms.

Once when I was discussing the need for a carbon tax, someone butted in, saying it was insane to have a carbon tax, since the same principles behind it would also suggest that we need a tax on breathing.

My response was "So? We do need a tax on breathing, according to economic orthodoxy, since the same principles apply!" There is nothing immediately wrong with taxing an activity that imposes a cost on others — my consumption of oxygen you could have used is something that should be taxed.

Of course, economic orthodoxy suggests a lot of things we don't implement in real life. The same principle suggesting that you get a tax credit for buying a new computer also suggests we should subsidise house painting (to take a real example used by economics textbooks).

Yet, governments don't really pay people money to paint their own houses. Why? Because in real life, there are things which economic models don't apply to because the axioms they operate under have broken down.

The logistical problems with implementing a tax on breathing do not exist in economics land, but they do exist in the real world. The same cannot be said for implementing a tax on industrial or transportation pollution.

There are a few quasi-reasonable arguments for denying global warming, or denying the need to address it in some way, out there. But these arguments from absurdity just aren't those arguments.

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