The Government Will Not Save You From Climate Change
The issue of climate change is often portrayed as an immediate and existential threat to human life. It is blamed for every storm, heat wave, polar vortex, and even terrorist attacks. The scientific community happily supplies the backers of their grants with the political fuel to endlessly fear monger. The politicians, for their part, blame free markets and refuse to take any responsibility for their contributions to the problem. The only solution, we are told, is massive tax increases, regulations, and subsidies. The media and celebrities mindlessly parrot these talking points word for word.
The solutions presented by our politicians and media, however, are completely counter productive. They would not curb global climate change trends, even assuming that the worst predictions are entirely correct. The only way to solve the problem, assuming it exists, is to allow inventors and innovators to present viable technological solutions. These solutions will never be achieved through the public sector, or government intervention, but only through entrepreneurs in the private sector. The government response will only obstruct these innovators and entrepreneurs.
I am not convinced that global climate change is entirely the result of human activity, and I am not convinced that humans do not impact the climate. I view this issue as interesting intellectually, but not as a “national emergency” or a reason for panic. I see the environment, climate change or otherwise, and human caused or otherwise, as a resource management problem. Governments throughout history have proven themselves to be unreliable and incapable of managing resources better than free markets.
In the case of automobiles and emissions, cars are no better now than they were 30 years ago. This is largely because of regulations placed on manufacturers that increase the curb weight of vehicles and reduce profit margins that could otherwise be used for research and development. Government also provides subsidies and bailouts that favor large manufacturers and place small start ups at a disadvantage. We would have had electric cars like the Tesla and small efficient cars like the Elio decades earlier if they didn’t have to deal with the huge up front costs imposed by government regulations. In the case of Elio, they have chosen to produce a three-wheeled car and call it a motorcycle, in order to avoid some of these costly regulations.
Smokey Yunick, a famous renegade car designer and mechanic, designed a “hot vapor” engine for the Pontiac Fiero which was featured in Hot Rod magazine in 1984. He had been given the Fiero by GM to tinker with, and ended up modifying the engine to produce 250 hp, which brought the car from 0-60 in 6.5 seconds, all while getting 51 mpg. He achieved these amazing results by preheating the fuel mixture with redirected exhaust gases, which produced a more complete combustion in the cylinder. His design was far ahead of its time, and ran at very hot temperatures. Although his original prototype wasn’t ready for mass production, it was a proof of concept. A running model still exists in the care of Smokey’s son.
So, why has this amazing innovation not entered mass production?
The short answer is that the cost of entering the car business is prohibitively expensive, and the existing car companies are only interested in developing technologies produced in-house. They are not concerned with having to compete with someone producing hot-vapor engines, so they have no reason to explore the technology. They have finally been forced to produce a few electric cars in response to Tesla, but market demand in general has very little impact on the industry. In a deregulated auto industry, Smokey could have worked with engineers to produce a commercial engine, and forced the rest of the industry to adopt his model.
The government has also put huge amounts of money into “green” energies such as wind, solar, and ethanol, which have proven themselves to be inefficient and costly. Cost is actually a fairly good measure of how viable an energy source is, since it is mostly a measure of the amount of energy required to produce the energy source. The materials may be rare and only found in a few locations around the world, they may be difficult to extract, or require large quantities. A manufacturing process may be complicated and energy intensive. An energy source which is more costly is less efficient, and therefor less “green”. In the case of ethanol, it is actually a net energy loss, meaning it takes more energy to produce than can be extracted from it.
Wind and solar also have other problems. The source materials and processes used to produce solar panels and other alternative energy sources are also sources of pollution. While solar panels and wind turbines could be added to many existing structures, if land must be allocated to generating electricity these technologies produce a very large footprint. Expanded land usage is a major environmental impact, disrupting ecosystems and reducing the amount of plant life available to respire carbon into oxygen. There is also a need for batteries, which must be replaced periodically and are a major source of waste. Solar and wind technologies are also highly dependent on location to be efficient, and can’t be implemented universally.
Solar and wind energy may someday become an effective replacement for fossil fuels, and if they do the market will readily adopt them. It is more likely, however, that some new technology will emerge in the meantime which replaces them. Nuclear fusion seems like the mostly likely candidate to me. Very promising advancements have been made in nuclear fusion in the past few years. Recently, scientists produced the first net energy gain from a fusion reaction. This technology is still in its infancy, and we won’t know just how viable it is for a few years. Honestly, I am no better than a government bureaucrat at predicting the future. If I was a gambler (and I am), that is where I would be placing my bets, though. The difference is that the government bureaucrat gambles with other people’s money.
The government has always been awful at picking winners and predicting which technologies would become successful. A wonderful example of this from American history is the development of the airplane. The government backed Dr. Samuel Langley and gave him a bunch of money because he was the most qualified individual to invent the airplane. They never would have given any money to a couple of bicycle mechanics from North Carolina, but the Wright Brothers became the inventors of the airplane against all expectations, and proved that the backing of Langley had been a huge waste.
Governments have mostly used climate change as a justification for regulations, which they wanted to impose anyway, and limit the ability of the free market to provide real solutions to problems. If climate change is a real problem which threatens human life, then governments are the last people who should be in charge of solving that problem. The issue of climate change is academic, and a legitimately interesting one, but should not be used to justify interventions in the economy. Doing so will surely fail, and assuming the most dire climate change predictions, doom us all.
By Ross Ticknor