Is an Ounce of Climate Change Prevention Worth a Pound of ‘Cure’?

Professor Jason Johnston Advocates for Cost-Benefit Approach in His New Book, ‘Climate Rationality’
Jason Johnston and “Climate Rationality: From Bias to Balance”

At UVA, Johnston serves as director of the John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics and the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation Professor of Law. He has written and taught courses on environmental regulation and land use. Photo by Jesús Pino

October 11, 2021

The young climate change activist Greta Thunberg famously stated, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

But is there a way to escape the fire and save the building, while not making costly mistakes in the process?

Professor Jason Johnston of the University of Virginia School of Law has written a new book that —  although not skeptical of the fact that human activity contributes to climate change — questions some of the assumptions being used to justify some policies that address climate impacts.

Cambridge University Press published his book, “Climate Rationality: From Bias to Balance,” in August.

“The great irony is that the policy is supposedly based on science,” said the law professor, who also holds a Ph.D. in economics. “But the policy has been so politicized, so moralized, that for many people now this isn’t even about the science; it’s about the moral issue of doing the ‘right thing.’”

At UVA, Johnston serves as director of the John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics and the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation Professor of Law. He has written and taught courses on environmental regulation and land use, and those experiences served as a partial basis for his interest in climate change policy, he said.

The more he learned about how related facts and figures were being presented in climate change discussion aimed at the public, the more he thought it would be valuable to compile his observations into book form.

“It bothered me that people were not being given an accurate picture of what’s known and not known,” he said. “The same is true with the economics. People were not being given enough information to know where these numbers are coming from.”

In the book, Johnston scrutinizes institutions such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. As an organization comprised of governments, the IPCC, he said, releases summaries of scientific reports months before the full reports are available, allowing the potential for political forces to assert a spin before journalists can compare what scientists contributing to the panel actually found.

Johnston also scrutinizes NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, which actively discusses the impact of climate change on its social media channels.

“I think their role as a government science agency should be to fully disclose what is known and unknown, and the limitations on their abilities to make any kinds of determinations or projections,” he said.

Planetary surface temperatures are one measure of the Earth’s warming or cooling. “There is still active disagreement in the scientific literature, to the extent that they may be overstating the temperature increase,” Johnston said.

According to climate models, the lowest level of the atmosphere, called the troposphere, should be registering greater warming than at the surface, he said.

“There’s this precise number for what the differential should be, generated by the models, and it just hasn’t been confirmed consistently.”

More often, he said, the studies have “found there’s more warming at the surface than in the lower levels of the atmosphere, and that’s not what’s predicted to happen if the warming is due to increased carbon dioxide.”

Johnston said other factors, such as black carbon or soot pollution and the mass development of land, may be affecting the climate picture in ways that aren’t being fully presented.

“Black carbon or soot emissions from burning coal for heating and cooking impacts the climate regionally. It’s the second-strongest warming agent after carbon dioxide,” he said. “The majority of scientists I could find think black carbon or soot has caused the majority of warming in the Arctic. But people don’t get to hear about that.”

In that regard, he said, the Chinese are suspected by some observers to be putting their thumbs on the scale at the IPCC by not allowing black carbon to be mentioned in summary reports, because of the nation’s heavy dependence on coal.

So why should the average person care about which pollutants contribute to the climate problem, and which energies and technologies governments favor in developing solutions, as long as the problem is addressed?

Johnston said the short answer is economic winners and losers are being chosen every day, without the benefit of a full cost-benefit analysis in most cases.

“The science is only settled from one particular point of view — if you think any evidence of a potentially serious and irreversible harm is enough to start taking policy actions,” Johnston said. “That’s what’s called the precautionary principle, and it only looks at one side. It doesn’t look at the potential costs and harms caused by this action you’re going to take.”

So-called clean or renewable energies aren’t always what they appear, he added. Wind farms only last 20-30 years — yet will continue to fill up landfills, as wind turbines and blades cannot be recycled, long after their usefulness. Solar panels are loaded with dangerous chemicals that will eventually have to be disposed of.

Meanwhile, such technologies effectively serve as a tax on the poor, Johnston said, because they cost more to produce energy than traditional methods, such as natural gas-fired plants.

Johnston said he sees nuclear power as the most viable option to reduce emissions while serving the needs of a growing world population, though he acknowledges the not-in-my-backyard obstacles that caused the energy source to fall out of favor in previous decades.

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