Bootleggers, Baptists, and Global Warming Revisited

Bjørn Lomborg draws upon the work of Bruce Yandle of PERC to warn against climate solutions touted by emerging green activist/big business alliances:

This sort of reaction—activists and big energy companies uniting to applaud anything that suggests a need for increased subsidies to alternative energy—has been famously described as the so-called “bootleggers and Baptists” theory of politics. The phrase comes from the South, where many jurisdictions required stores to close on Sunday, thus preventing the sale of alcohol. The regulation was supported by religious groups for moral reasons and by bootleggers for market reasons. Politicians would adopt the Baptists’ pious rhetoric, while quietly taking campaign contributions from the bootleggers.

Bruce Yandle has written extensively on the “bootleggers and Baptists” theory of regulation in a variety of contexts, including this PERC Policy Series on global warming. Lomborg succinctly describes how the theory relates to climate change policy:

The climate-change “Baptists” provide the moral cover that politicians can use to sell regulation, along with scary stories that the media can use to attract readers or viewers. Businesses see opportunities for taxpayer-funded subsidies, and to pass on inevitable cost growth to consumers. Unfortunately, this convergence of interests can push us to focus on ineffective, expensive responses to climate change. Whenever opposite political forces attract, as activists and big business have in the case of global warming, there is a high risk that the public interest will be caught in the middle.

Case in point: the ethanol boondoggle? Lomborg also describes the dire, yet poorly sourced, claims of rising food prices caused by global warming. Such predictions have led to a recent Oxfam report calling for collective political climate action to combat rising food prices. Yet even the rosiest scenario, in which all politicians agree to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, would result in almost immeasureable reductions in temperatures by 2030. Lomborg has a better idea:

If we want to help the world’s poor avoid the pain of higher food prices, we should focus on developing better and more nutritional crop varieties, getting more fertilizer to farmers, fighting for freer trade, and, of course, the elimination of biofuel support. Those are the policies that would make a real impact on food prices.