By Ujwal Batra

In thinking about climate change, and environmental challenges in general; one is likely to believe that these problems can only be addressed by governments, elaborate regulations and an exhaustive set of restraints—willingly adopted. Julian Morris, Vice President of Research at Reason Foundation, contends that our belief in the capacity of the state in engineering solutions to climate change is likely misplaced; and that robust, enduring solutions can come from society and the free market. He delivered a talk in CCS last week talking about free-market solutions to climate change.

The claim, of course, seems suspect. Is not economic activity, fuelled through fossil fuels the root cause of climate change? The solutions, then, ought to come from governments—that can restrain economic activity, subsidize clean energy, and place restrictions on our use of carbon-based fuels.

Here’s the catch though—while we are quick to blame fossil fuels as the root cause for all environmental ills, we forget that they have been a massive boon too. They have fuelled the economic growth over the last 200 hundred years that has, among other things—increased our lifespans, improved our standard of living and given us technology (heaters and air conditioners, for one) that shields us from the vagaries of nature.  A policy framework that restricts the use of Carbon-based fuels would severely thwart economic development, particularly in developing nations, making it difficult for them to escape poverty.

Carbon control, then, might not be the solution to our climate woes. According to Morris, carbon control legitimises the imposition of the very barriers that currently hold back people in poor countries. With such restrictions, resources will be diverted away from wealth-enhancing activities into lower-carbon technologies; and that might not be the most ideal use of our resources.

With wealth comes resilience. With greater income, people are healthier, have access to better healthcare and live longer. As GDP increases, deaths from extreme weather events fall as the infrastructure is more sound, communication technologies are better and people are generally better prepared.  Developing countries need to get richer to tackle poverty and reap the fruits that come with greater prosperity; and also to tackle environmental challenges.

Our energies then, Morris contends, should be channelled not in tackling climate change directly (by restricting carbon emissions) , but in tackling it indirectly—in creating infrastructure that can better withstand extreme weather events, in developing technologies and crop varieties that increase food production, and by advancements in medicine that eradicate and mitigate the impact of diseases. All the problems that climate change is likely to exacerbate are serious problems we need to tackle anyway. Focussing our energies in continually tackling these problems is likely to produce better, robust and immediate solutions; instead of merely reducing carbon emissions which will not address these problems and is likely to make only a small dent in the rise in temperatures. In the past many decades, deaths due to extreme weather events have fallen, food production (despite an enormous increase in population) has increased and advancements in technology have helped us fight many diseases that were previously thought to be incurable. In one word, we are far more resilient than we ever have been in history–and in tackling climate change–we should aim in increasing this resilience.

There is little doubt that the earth’s temperature has increased over the last 100 years due to increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by human activity. While the science around it can be uncertain at times and the models unpredictable, no one can deny that climate change is a very real problem. But we would be far better off is taking a tempered view of things—by eschewing the alarmism that has come to surround the debate around it, and in looking for real, enduring solutions. Society and the free market are a part of the solution, not part of the problem.

This article was first published on Spontaneous Order.

Posted by The Indian Economist