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What Would Frederic Bastiat Say About Don’t Look Up and the State of Climate Change Policy?

Martin Rodriguez Rodriguez, Contributor


The works of the 19th century French economist offer much needed clarity when it comes to tackling climate change, Martin Rodriguez Rodriguez reports.

I watched the film Don’t Look Up and could not avoid thinking about what 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat would think about it. In terms of the current state of the climate policy debate, I presume that he would have a few things to say.

The movie starts when two scientists, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, discover that a comet, “a planet-killer,” is heading to the earth. Unless political leaders act decisively, the consequences would be the extinction of the human species and life on earth as we know it. Voilà, the climate change analogy that drives the movie’s narrative and morale is set within the first ten minutes.

I instantly thought about Bastiat because while governments and the private sector must act to avoid the worst effects of man-made climate change, too often the debate about the policies and strategies is woefully inadequate. Regrettably, it has become increasingly challenging to dispassionately consider the trade-offs of available policy choices to tackle this global problem.

A representative case of this heightened environment of intolerance was the $10 million defamation lawsuit, later dropped, that a prominent Stanford University professor filed in 2017 against the lead author of a paper critical of his work on the viability of 100 percent renewable energy. While it might seem like an outlier case, there is little doubt that in some circles, questioning any part of the policy orthodoxy to deal with climate change has become grounds for challenging one’s character or motives.

This intellectual environment has prevented discussion on the nuances of policy choices, many of which are being adopted without proper scrutiny. Rigorous cost-benefit analyses, standard in other policy spheres, are sometimes stranded beyond credulity to justify regressive policies in the present, many of which voters in democratic societies have rejected when asked explicitly.

In this sense, I think the movie does a superb job at catering to this camp of the policy debate, the one demanding bold action but with little interest in the details and consequences of their preferred policies. Spoiler alert! In the movie, we all perish because the financial interest of powerful billionaires and corporations prevailed over the good of humanity and saving the planet. Sound familiar?

However, notwithstanding the simplistic appeal of this narrative of bad guys and good guys, the reality is that the energy systems that we rely on everyday are a lot more complex than you often hear. 

Despite how much we would like for it to be a switch to reduce carbon emissions, the policy choices that we have available today to combat climate change involve significant trade-offs. If these are not objectively considered and addressed, policymakers would be acting incurring what Bastiat said were bad economics—they will pursue a small current benefit that is followed by a considerable disadvantage in the future.

In his essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” Bastiat masterfully explains that economic actions, which we can substitute here for climate policy, have not just one effect but a series of effects. The first and immediate impacts are those that are seen, the others that occur successively into the future are those that are not seen.

I worry that well-intended policymakers and advocates are pursuing policies without exploring the unintended, diffuse, and long-run consequences. Perhaps more worrisome is that even bringing this framework to bear can land you in hot water.

Last December, at a Harvard Center for the Environment event, your columnist was scolded by a professor for bringing up the Energy Information Administration figures on energy poverty in America. The professor all but dismissed my concerns about the effects of some policies on lower-income households, calling it a “fossil fuel talking point.” I found that episode disconcerting, but at least it confirmed my experience that questioning the wisdom of some of the policy choices to fight climate change is often not acceptable.

It appears that society would be better served if policymakers and advocates acknowledge, as Daniel Yergin has explained, the energy transitions of the past have taken a very long time. This one is no different, and it is perhaps an even more significant undertaking.

That said, I have no qualms about the policy direction that the world has embarked to reach net-zero by 2050. My misgivings are about how governments will manage the transition away from fossil fuels in a way that is affordable and does not reduce economic growth. If not careful, government overreach in the form of mandates and standards that cost too much could negatively affect human progress and prosperity. In other words, if climate policy interventions substantially reduce economic growth, it is possible to imagine a scenario where the cure is worse than the disease.

For all the laughs I got watching the movie, I ought to think the straightforward climate catastrophism reflected in it is a disservice to human ingenuity and technological innovation. I’m inclined to believe that the engineers, scientists, and researchers working tirelessly to come up with the next set of breakthrough technologies would have a different take on the future of humanity and the planet.

As a society, we would do a better job at averting the worst effects of climate change if we were willing to engage with others who might disagree with our preferred set of policies and look for common ground. Hubristic attitudes of some developed nations in their dealings with the developing world, which will largely determine the future trajectory of global emissions, are unconstructive. Those who think they can dictate or coerce development models of other nations from foreign capitals have not been paying attention.

Removing our blinders to carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of different climate policy choices with more humility can give policymakers and advocates the necessary foresight to see what is “unseen.” If alive today, I posit Bastiat would say as much about the current state of climate policy debates.

If you would like to continue the conversation, reach out to Martín Rodriguez Rodriguez for further discussion. If you would like to provide your perspective and contribute to the Harbus, reach out to Editor-in-Chief Alex Smith at asmith@mba2023.hbs.edu.

 

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Martin Rodriguez Rodriguez is a Venezuelan policy entrepreneur, always keen on creating good and necessary trouble. He is a section D partner. 


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