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Monday, July 13, 2009

CNN ran an article last Friday on 'Greening the Internet.' While I found the title amusing, the article raised a few issues I would like to illustrate.

1. Accountability - Who do you hold accountable for carbon dioxide emissions caused by "the Internet"? Additionally, who do you hold accountable for reducing these emissions? The end users? ISPs? data centers? Microsoft? Policy without accountability is useless at best, and harmful to competition through unjust application at worst. This further shows the inability of policymakers to understand the nature of the Internet, demonstrating their failure to grasp the libertarian moment.

2. Secondary consequences - I just finished my long-overdue reading of Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson (a MUST-read for anyone seeking a better understanding of economics, regardless of your politics), and he focuses heavily on looking beyond the immediate consequences. The author of the Internet article falls for the all-too-common fallacy of looking at one entity in isolation. In this case, she (and the researchers she cite) look only at the carbon emissions caused by the Internet but completely ignore the emissions reduced by our utilization of the Internet.

For example, due to the Internet, many people no longer subscribe to printed media such as newspapers and magazines. This eliminates emissions in producing these products, including the paper and ink used to make them. (For a popular example, check out I, Pencil by Lawrence W. Reed courtesy of the Foundation for Economic Education).

As a bigger bonus, the Internet reduces the need to cut down as many trees, which, in turn, reduces the amounts of carbon dioxide in the air. Ironically (but unsurprisingly), many policymakers want to bailout these very printed media outlets even though their contraction reduces carbon emissions.

3. Imperativeness - The article passes the following statement off as scientific fact:

"Scientists are saying to us that we have 10 years to take some serious action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change so taking some sort of initiative is absolutely vital."
Really? 10 years? Where are the figures that show our current level of carbon emissions will cause a an irreversible atmospheric imbalance? No such findings exist.

I agree with Keith Hennessey, in his discussion on the need for a carbon tax:
If we knew with certainty that Earth would warm 10 degrees over the next 20-30 years, I would be screaming for an immediate big carbon tax. If instead we think Earth is likely to warm one degree over the next century or two, then climate change is a trivial concern and we needn’t worry about it. The problem is that nobody knows where we are between these two extremes. This uncertainty matters a lot, and it makes the problem hard.

...And so I am willing to consider significant and effective policy actions to slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions to reduce that risk [emphasis in original]. I do not, however, believe that risk is so great or so certain that we must immediately commit to drastic changes in our economy, or that we must ignore the costs of those policy actions [emphasis added].

Posted by Eleutherian

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