There are those who have adopted what amounts to a business-as-usual climate change policy – hoping that free markets and technological development will stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a safe level and deal with the consequences of the climate change that is already on the way, due to past emissions. While a lot of people take this position for self-interested reasons, I think there are at least some who adopt it in good faith. They look back at previous challenges, and situations where some people said a massive societal effort was required, and they see that the problems were less severe than advertised and that a muddled government response was adequate.
The great irony of taking this approach is that it is virtually certain to produce the opposite outcome from what its proponents are seeking. Right now, we have the chance to establish powerful incentives for critical voluntary actions: things like energy efficiency, stopping the construction of coal plants, and developing renewable sources of energy. Mechanisms like a carbon tax, feed-in tariffs for renewables, incentive programs, and the like are ways to encourage both private actors and firms to take these steps. If we fail to put those policies in place and we allow emissions to keep on rising for another decade or more, avoiding catastrophic climate change will only be possible through rigid controls: rationing, strict mandates, and major interventions in business and the lives of individuals. If we fail to take advantage of the time available for a smoothed transition to a low carbon economy, the transition will necessarily be a more abrupt and painful one.
The heuristic that says “we dealt with past problems, therefore we need not sacrifice economic liberty to fight climate change” leads, in all probability, to a situation where curtailing those liberties is the only road forward.