The ghosts of global warming

John Humphreys

30 October 2009

In just over a month, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to work out a plan of action to tackle climate change. But something spooky is happening in America that may get in the way of an agreement.

According to the latest Pew poll on climate change, only 36% of Americans agree that the Earth is warming and that humans are responsible.

By comparison, a Gallup poll has found that 37% of Americans believe that houses can be haunted.

At first the two issues don’t seem linked – but there are some similarities between global warming and ghost stories. Both are supposed to be dangerous. Both are hard to see. Both are used to frighten children and simple-minded people.

Stephen King has made a fortune writing about haunted houses while Al Gore has made a fortune talking about global warming.

But there is a very important difference.

Belief in ghosts is silly but harmless. There is no Copenhagen ghost conference, with more than 15,000 officials discussing ways to introduce a ghost trading system and arranging multi-trillion dollar compensation for ghost victims.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that higher concentrations of greenhouse gases are going to warm up the world. Temperatures haven’t changed much in recent years, but many climate watchers expect the upward trend to continue eventually.

When that happens, there will be costs and benefits. William Nordhaus and Joseph Boyer estimated that 2.5 degrees of warming may cost America 0.5% of GDP. Richard Toll has a higher estimate of 1.5% of GDP, while Robert Mendelsohn and James Newmann predict a net benefit from warming of 0.1% of GDP, primarily due to benefits to agriculture.

So climate change is a potential threat. But the bigger threat comes from what politicians are going to do to ‘save’ us.

The movies tell us that if a meteor is going to hit Earth, all we need to do is shoot Hollywood actors at the inbound rock while we listen to emotional music. In the same vein, when the Earth is threatened with climate change, all we need to do is to send our politicians to a conference and have them agree to global treaties.

But the Copenhagen conference is almost guaranteed to fail. The developing world is not going to agree to give up cheap energy, and the developed countries are going to find ways to look busy while not doing too much. The Copenhagen agreement will be as useful as the Kyoto Protocol.

Unfortunately, while a global treaty may not achieve much, it will still be costly. If an emissions trading system (ETS) wasn’t bad enough, we’re also facing suggestions of massive compensation payments and even a global tax.

Belief in ghosts is much less costly.

John Humphreys is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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