Today, I part ways with Time blogger Andrew Sullivan on the issue of global warming.

I like Sullivan, and I don’t think he’s the kind of guy to plod clumsily into a left-liberal environmental credo. That said, his article in today’s Times entitled ‘Wanted: a practical guide to saving the warming planet” makes me wonder if he has been weighing the arguments as carefully as he would have you believe. Just yesterday, Sullivan berated the National Review’s Iain Murray for saying “you probably shouldn’t talk about climate policy during a heatwave”. (The US has been experiencing some record highs, though here in the desert things have been beautifully mild for the time of year. The Left have been having an orgy of appraisal, seeing it as some sort of vindication of their claims about climate change.) Murray asserts that, contrary to the environmental wackoist estimation, it is “pretty frigid” in parts of the Southern Hemisphere right now. Sullivan responds: “I would have thought that even a minimal understanding of global warming would grasp that indeed it will result in many parts of the earth getting much colder.” For the love of God, Andrew; it’s summer in the States and winter in South Africa. What does any of this prove? Murray happens to be absolutely correct, and, as you point out, heatwaves in America don’t prove a damned thing.

Sullivan spends much of his Times article assuring his fellow conservatives that climate change is indeed a conservative concern: “Of all those likely to be alarmed by freakishly hot summers, potentially freezing futures and drastic events such as super-hurricanes, conservatives should surely be the most prominent.” Sullivan admits that a summer heatwave “does not a global warming make”, and cites the “cogent” arguments of experts like Bjorn Lomborg downplaying the importance of any climate policies at this point. But he then goes on to make a very big deal of global warming indeed, saying that “…there comes a point at which the data reaches a tipping point of credibility for even the most querulous sceptic.”

So let’s take a look at what exactly is tipping the boy’s scales. “[My scales are being tipped by] the unexpected recent acceleration of global warming and the now-famous feedback loop in which warming can not just increase gradually, but swiftly – as carbon melts the polar ice-packs, decreases the amount of energy reflected back into space and so ratchets the cycle of warming much more dramatically. The record heatwaves of the past decade are not flukes. Neither are the more extreme hurricanes and typhoons that we have been experiencing lately.”

This week, however, hurricane expert William Gray said that the tropical Atlantic Ocean surface temperatures are 1 to 3 degrees cooler than they were at this time last year, and that that will lead to fewer hurricanes. (A degree would appear to be a lot in climatology, since that is the amount of the rise in average global temperatures in the past century, and the cause of all this Chicken Littleism.) The frequency of hurricanes appears to have dropped over the past 50 years. And it is an revealing fact of statistics that the longer observations are made, the greater the probability that we will find more and more ‘extreme’ weather to observe: the ‘hottest summer’ or ‘record temperatures’. It is also a pertinent fact that it was much warmer 1000 years ago, yet the sum total of human emissions was merely the combined efforts of mutual flatulence. If these things “do not a global warming make” then why is Sullivan suddenly so convinced? The answer may actually lie in a denial: “Yes, I saw Gore’s persuasive movie, An Inconvenient Truth. But no, I’m not some sudden convert to environmentalism…” [emphasis mine]. Okay.

Of course, those who are aware of my position on climate change will know that, whether or not climate change is occurring, I oppose government measures to interfere in the market or to obstruct freedom. So my main interest is the heart of Sullivan’s article; how to save delicate planet Earth.

In terms of policy, Sullivan is caught between a rock and a hard place: he feels called to be a conservative, but he feels bad for the fragile planet. So, he rejects some of the leftist measures and alternatively prescribes slightly less draconian ones: “Instead of crude limits on certain emissions, governments can create markets in pollution permits, allowing companies to buy and sell rights to pollute and so allow economic costs to be minimised.” Much better, right?

“Or the government can tax petrol so the global market makes it more profitable for the private sector to develop new energy technologies more quickly.” Of course; it’s genius.

Except the reason that we shouldn’t accept “crude” limits on emissions is exactly the same reason that we shouldn’t accept tax on gasoline or pollution permits: they infringe on the liberty of citizens to go about their lives and businesses without fear of coercion. There is a serious breach of human liberty involved in a prohibitive gasoline tax, in principal and in practice. The principal is simple: human beings have certain key inviolable rights, and the role of their government is to protect those rights, not to violate them. In practice, it’s basic economics: the price of gasoline goes up, people have less money to spend on other things, companies see their profits go down and people go out of business.

Sullivan says: “In America, car emissions standards are beneath China’s. That is a scandal. Petrol, in real terms, is cheaper in the United States than in the past; and yet the Bush administration still will not touch the tax on it.” Of course they won’t – the administration is unpopular enough already! But on a broader note, the reason the American economy is doing so well is precisely because Bush refuses to mess with the market. There is much to criticise Bush for, but this is not one of them. It’s Economics 101 – when tax is low, the economy does well. For all that Sullivan talks about conservatism in sugary terms, he is willing to compromise immensely easily on some of its primary virtues.

Sullivan would like Washington to “tax petrol to a level that jolts the private sector into serious non-carbon-based energy investment.” Hell’s Bells, folks – it’s like a colony of fire-ants have infested everyone’s pants here. Everyone is in such a rush to establish totally emissionless energy standards – it’s clear which activists they’re listening to. When you believe that there is a serious question as to whether it is “…too late to avoid some of the more drastic environmental consequences of more inertia,” you’ve been drinking the wrong Kool-Aid. Sullivan thinks that, “As Churchill once remarked, Americans always do the right thing… eventually,” and that the only question is whether they’ll do it in time.

It is astounding to hear Sullivan so readily give in to this End Of The World axiom. To the contrary, I think Americans are the only ones still doing the right thing. It only takes a mouse to fart and the Europeans go into a panic along with half of Britain, followed quickly by cosmopolitan leftist elites Stateside who are frustrated at the imperturbability of their fellow countrymen.

Yes, people will suffer when the government imposes on their ability to do business in a free market. The people that will suffer are the very people Sullivan relies on to produce the solution to global warming: “There is money in green technology. Just as the private sector innovated anti-HIV drugs which then helped to save many in developing countries, so new energy sources can soon be adopted elsewhere.” Companies thrive when the government leaves them alone, not when the government “jolts” them with higher taxes, a way of removing from them more of the fruits of their labour and leaving them less of an incentive to produce. Do I really have to explain this to a conservative?

And let’s take a look again at what Sullivan said about pollution permits: “…Governments can create markets in pollution permits, allowing companies to buy and sell rights to pollute and so allow economic costs to be minimised.” The language makes it sound great; government would be “allowing” companies to have “permits” and “so allow” “costs to be minimised”. In reality, what Sullivan describes here is nothing affable and the opposite of rewarding. What it means is that rather than “allowing” anything, government would force companies to pay a heavy premium for their CO2 emissions and perhaps even the CO2 that their products emit (as in the case of vehicle manufacturers). It is a way of punishing those companies whose business produces a lot of CO2 and rewarding those that don’t; but in actual fact it would punish everyone, since our entire society is dependent on processes which release carbon emissions. Rather than eat the cost, vehicle manufacturers would pass it along to the customer, which is what Sullivan wants, of course. You should pay for your emissions, because if you don’t the world might end.

The truth is that, were every protocol on the worst climatological nightmare scenario ratified by every nation on our ailing Earth, we still would not be able to influence the climate significantly. Apart from the belief of many (though a minority of) scientists that greenhouse gases like CO2 are only mildly contributing to the current warming trend, it is unlikely in any case that we would be able to curb emissions ahead of the inevitable advance in technology.

As Robert J. Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post on July 5th this year: “No government will adopt the draconian restrictions on economic growth and personal freedom (limits on electricity usage, driving and travel) that might curb global warming. Still, politicians want to show they’re ‘doing something.’ The result is grandstanding. Consider the Kyoto Protocol. It allowed countries that joined to castigate those that didn’t. But it hasn’t reduced carbon dioxide emissions (up about 25 percent since 1990), and many signatories didn’t adopt tough enough policies to hit their 2008-2012 targets. By some estimates, Europe may overshoot by 15 percent and Japan by 25 percent.” This from the nations that are so gung-ho about observing emissions-celibacy.

Samuelson concludes: “The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it’s really an engineering problem.”

It seems obvious to me that the real long-term solution to concerns about the climate is to give bountiful freedom to the same people that brought mankind thus far throughout recent history, and may have happened to inadvertently cause this problem in the process: engineers working at companies who want to make a profit bringing new technology to market. That will not be achieved by government trespassing in the free market or slapping the private sector with crippling taxation and coercion.

Now somebody please tell Andrew Sullivan.

John Wright