OzoneGate and ClimateGate

In his post below, Eric Posner asks why ozone depletion and the phaseout of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances did not produce the same degree of backlash as does global warming.

Where were the Climate Skeptics back then?  Or was ozonegate, like asteroidgate, a non-event because the climate is a “complex system” whereas, um….  Why didn’t “hierarchical and individualist” citizens find the Montreal Protocol “threatening to their identities”?  (Cf. Dave Hoffman on asteroidgate.)  Were scientists more honest in those days?  Commentators more sober?  The public more credulous?

I would challenge some of Eric’s assumptions.  There were climate skeptics back then (indeed, some of the ozone skeptics back then are climate skeptics now) and “hierarchical and individualist” citizens (as represented by right-of-center authors, commentators, and think tanks) challenged the scientific claims.  Accepting his implicit assumption that the scientific case for a link between CFCs and ozone depletion at the time was no greater than for apocalyptic climate change today, there was still much less at stake, so the scientific debate had less salience, and there was less political controversy.  I’ll briefly expand on each point.

First, there was significant skepticism about initial ozone depletion claims, skepticism that was echoed and amplified by those who opposed government regulation.  Questions about ozone depletion were raised in Dixy Lee Ray’s best-selling Trashing the Planet and echoed by Rush Limbaugh.  In 1989, National Review published the article “My Adventures in the Ozone Layer” by Dr. Fred Singer, a prominent skeptic of both ozone depletion concerns and climate change.  Early on, such skepticism was warranted, but as scientific evidence accumulated, many of those inclined toward skepticism accepted the basic claim that CFCs could and did cause ozone depletion.  Ronald Bailey’s 1993 Eco-Scam, for instance, accepted the basic scientific claims and acknowledged that ozone depletion could have been a significant concern.  Still, even today there are pockets of skepticism related to ozone depletion, particularly about the contribution of certain chemicals, such as methyl bromide.

Second, policies to control ozone depletion are not nearly as far-reaching or intrusive as policies to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.  CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances were always specialized chemicals.  They were in widespread use as coolants, but they still don’t compare to carbon dioxide, the most ubiquitous by-product of modern industrial civilization.  Buying new refrigerators and retrofitting car air-conditioners may be expensive or inconvenient, but it hardly compares to the sorts of measures contemplated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   So it’s not surprising that there was less outrage or resistance to the scientific claims.  [This also highlights an important difference between climate change and Eric’s asteroid example: the anti-asteroid rockets would presumably be financed by general tax revenues and provided as a public good, whereas climate policies will impose disproportionate costs and controls on specific sectors of the economy.]

Third, there’s an important wrinkle in the history of U.S. policy on ozone depletion that Eric omits.  Initially, the U.S. government was adamantly opposed to controlling CFCs, beyond the initial 1978 ban on their use in aerosol cans.  In the 1980s, however, the U.S. government did not support a CFC phase-out until industry was on board.  And industry was not on board until the leading CFC manufacturer, DuPont, faced significant competition for its patented CFC compounds and and was well-positioned to dominate the replacement market. When DuPont joined the call for a complete phaseout in 1988, the CFC trade industry still voiced some  skepticism about the science, but DuPont was ready to sell more expensive CFC substitutes — compounds for which there would have been no real market without the phaseout.  [For those interested, I summarized this history near the end of my 1996 article, Rent-Seeking Behind the Green Curtain.]

In retrospect, the CFC phaseout was a good idea, but even assuming that the level of scientific certainty was no greater when the CFC phaseout was adopted than there is with climate change today, there are many important differences between the two policy debates.  First,there was less reason for skepticism to blossom into sustained political opposition because there was less at stake — the phaseout’s costs were concentrated on a few industries, not spread economy wide, and a CFC phaseout did not threaten regulatory controls on ordinary Americans.  Second, the potential economic benefits to dominant industry players meant powerful economic  interests supported the phaseout, interests that far outweighed those sectors likely to experience significant costs (and, in these sectors as well, groups rapidly emerged to capture the rents a phaseout could produce).  So there were powerful “bootleggers” to support the environmental “baptists.”  Third, the most significant effects of a phaseout were likely to be felt overseas, in those nations in which a CFC phaseout would diminish the availability of affordable refrigeration technologies, and those nations could be easily bought off.  I also think the nature of the CFC threat — a potential increased risk of skin cancer — generates more political traction than a change in temperature.

Another important difference between ozone depletion and climate change, is that there was reason to believe that a near-total phaseout of CFCs was the only meaningful way to address the threat of ozone depletion, whereas there may be ways to address climate change concerns that don’t involve empowering a massive regulatory bureaucracy.  While most climate policy proponents advocate far-reaching regulatory programs, covering everything from industrial emissions and transportation to product design and land-use, there are alternative ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations, or the threat of enhanced greenhouse warming (if not all three), ranging from revenue-neutral carbon taxes to technological fixes, to various forms of geoengineering.  Because there is a disproportionate emphasis on regulatory controls, some opponents of clmate policies suspect some climate policy advocates are as interested in imposing such controls as they are in saving the planet — as then-Senator Tim Wirth said some 20 years ago, global warming was an excuse to “do the right thing” even if the problem wasn’t real.

To reiterate my own views, I believe that human activity contributes to global warming, and that it is a serious concern (even if I don’t accept claims that global warming threatens human civilization).  ClimateGate is a real scientific scandal that may justify increased caution about some of the more definitive or apocalyptic statements about climate science, but I do not see it compromising the essential case for a human contribution to climate change.  My policy preference is for measures that do the most to address the actual threats posed by warming while minimizing consequent restrictions on liberty or the imposition of costs on those who have not contributed signficantly to the problem.  I think massive regulatory programs are ill-adivsed, and that proposed cap-and-trade programs will provide massive opportunities for rent-seeking while doing little to reduce actual emissions or enhance our capacity to deal with the problem.  On the other hand, I would welcome a revenue-neutral carbon tax, combined with other policies to enhance technological innovation, and believe that industrialized nations should help more vulnerable nations adapt to the inevitable, and at this point unavoidable, near to medium term effects of projected warming.  I’ve also argued (in this article) that principled adherence to libertarian principles justifies greater action on climate change.