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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Consensus on Contentious Claims

Consensus on Contentious Claims
by John A. Baden, Ph.D.

Three decades ago, it was rare to get three summer cuttings of hay at our ranch -- now this is the norm. Global warming is a plausible explanation. Barbra Streisand, Al Gore, and many scientists have proclaimed consensus: global warming is occurring, we are causing it, and the consequences are significant. But the question remains: If this consensus is justified, how should we act?

Wide consensus on unimportant matters is of little ethical consequence: Coke is better than Pepsi and plaid clashes with stripes. This is also true of important phenomena beyond our influence: the sun rises in the East, liquid boils when its vapor pressure reaches atmospheric pressure, and hairy caterpillars harbinger a cold winter.

But when issues have serious implications for the well-being of others, enforced consensus often signals a paucity of critical thinking and a wealth of cowardice. When consequences affect innocent others, it’s ethically and intellectually irresponsible to stifle opposing viewpoints. Under forced consensus, opportunistic pretense trumps honest reflection.

This posturing is, alas, contagious. No wonder. Global warming represents the mother lode of externalities. Efforts to combat climate change enable hectoring and hypocrisy. Barbra Streisand jets into Washington to warn Bill Clinton about global warming, and jets out. Prince Charles has bricks put in his toilets’ reservoirs to save water while his four-score servants maintain his lifestyle. It must be fun to wallow in sanctimony while deaf to counterarguments and insulated from consequences.

Reality is what persists when illusions are tested and found wanting. Here it comes: The world has far more problems than funds available to address them.

Let’s ignore those challenges that primarily afflict the wealthy (such as socializing children who have never known material deprivation) and focus instead on the least well off. Nearly three billion people subsist on less than $2.00 per day. How can we best allocate resources to improve the lives of the poor, their children, and their grandchildren?

This is not an idle exercise; it has substantial implications for billions. Two years ago, a group of the world’s most respected economists, including Nobel Laureate and FREE’s 2003 Summer Scholar Thomas Schelling, were posed with a question: Given significant but finite resources, what are the best investments for improving our world? They chose clean water, public health, primary education (especially of girls), and inexpensive dietary improvements.

Addressing global warming didn’t make the cut. Why not? It could consume all the funds while producing uncertain rewards in the far distant future. Instead, these funds could be invested in developing economies. By attracting foreign capital, poor nations could gain economic resiliency, the surest route to a better future.

The experiment with economists was recently replicated by John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the UN. Not one to shrink from controversy, he empanelled UN diplomats from seven emerging nations, including India and China, to prioritize the issues. After hearing from experts in the problem areas, they ranked global crises ranging from climate change to migration. The top four were again health care, water and sanitation, education, and child nutrition. Climate change was, of course, dead last. No honest policy analyst would be surprised by these rankings.

While most agree that climate change is occurring, many proposed “solutions” are monumentally expensive, uncertain, and distant. They are, in sum, the sorriest of investments. Providing vitamin A, on the other hand, costs less than $1 per person per year, saves lives, and prevents childhood blindness. Encouraging breast feeding cheaply and effectively promotes infant health. These nutritional initiatives do not, however, offer a stage for pretense and drama. No matter how skilled the movie director, it’s hard to make public health reform a sexy issue.

One could argue that polar bears are more important than Pakistanis. The bears are indeed threatened by the melting of Arctic ice floes. Should we then invest to retard global warming, even if that investment could instead save millions of Pakistanis from easily preventable disease? An analogous argument would apply to Whitebark pine and grizzly bears. Would Streisand, Gore, and Prince Charles deem grizzly bears more deserving of funds than the developing world? Although implicitly misanthropic, this would at least be logically consistent and honest: traits rare among myopic global warming alarmists.

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