There’s an important debate underway about whether governments ought to – or even can – try to control carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. There are two variations on this theme. One is the “uncertainty” argument advanced by some conservatives, including the National Review’s Jim Manzi:
As far as I can see, proponents of emissions reductions will respond with four arguments: (1) inflate the analyzed costs of global warming by claiming the science actually now says things will be even worse than we previously thought, (2) inflate the analyzed costs of global warming by embedding indefensible discount rate assumptions in the black box of econometric calculations used by economists to conduct the cost-benefit analysis, (3) deflate the analyzed costs of emissions mitigation by claiming a free lunch – that there is a cost-free or low-cost way to radically reduce emissions, and/or (4) turn this into a moral crusade asserting that we have a moral duty to the poor of the world because of our past sins of emission. I have laid out responses to each of these objections: 1, 2, 3 and 4. When considered carefully, emissions mitigation proponents have no persuasive arguments.
In other words, given the unknowns here – both the scale of the problem and the costs of fixing it – we should do nothing. There are several problems with this. The first is that this is not a new argument at all. It is the MO employed by business interests and anti-big government conservatives every time action is proposed on some environmental problem: “we don’t know enough, it will bankrupt us.” This is a recipe for political paralysis – and that’s exactly the point, as Manzi’s post acknowledges. And it has been disastrous – just look at the state of fisheries, to cite a prominent example. Fishing interests managed to tie regulatory agencies in knots for years, saying we didn’t know enough to restrict fishing. Many fish populations collapsed and the fishermen went out of business.
Our experience of the past generation – the past decade especially – argues for being more proactive, not less, especially on gigantic problems. What about the notion that cap-and-trade will sink the economy? It will clearly have at least a modest impact on growth – and it should, because growth is the problem. But businesses always argue that new costs will kill them, while history shows that they usually manage to innovate and adapt.
Finally, Manzi’s argument itself has the whiff of disingenuousness, as if he started not with the goal of actually addressing a problem, but to devise a political strategy and talking points that would allow conservatives to acknowledge the reality of global warming – and thus not seem crazy – while continuing to do as little as possible. It’s situationalism, not a genuine grappling with the issues.
The other argument, advanced by Schellenberger and Nordhaus, the proprietors of the Breakthrough Institute, is that the horse is already so far out of the barn that any global agreement to cap CO2 emissions will be both bureaucratically nightmarish and outrageously expensive – and will ultimately fail:
The entire global framework for reducing carbon emissions, and indeed the entire conceptual and policy framework for addressing global warming, is a failure, based on an older paradigm of pollution control that won’t slow global warming.
At bottom, global warming is not so much a pollution regulation challenge as it is an energy development one. To understand how different this challenge is from past pollution quandaries, consider that by 2050 global energy consumption will more than double, even as we face the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent. This transformation will not be accomplished by affixing scrubbers on smokestacks or catalytic converters on tailpipes–technical fixes that required little change to the underlying processes and technologies that they mitigated. Rather, it will require fundamental changes to the underlying technologies and fuel sources that power the global economy.
The problem with Kyoto, cap and trade, and most other policies aimed at enacting this transformation is that they focus primarily on the pollution problem, not the energy supply problem. As such, they attempt to enact the necessary transformation of the global energy economy through the indirect mechanism of pollution regulations and carbon markets, rather than through the direct deployment of new clean-energy technologies.
I’m sympathetic to these ideas – after all, they may be right. Carbon emissions are escalating, the world is changing, and there’s nothing resembling a global consensus on how to address this. Even starting now, we may never catch up; and even if we can, cap-and-trade may turn out to be unworkable. But I think the argument fails on two counts. First, global politics can change; cap-and-trade may work. It seems silly to just give up based on the experience of Kyoto, which for all intents and purposes was conceived and executed in a different era. Second, their solution is to direct massive government and private investment to technology. Surely, we need this. But if you’re skeptical about government regulation, you ought to be even more skeptical about government subsdies to private interests, which are, well, pork. In other words, our political system is not set up to dole out billions in a rational, strategic manner.
I don’t see why we can’t do both: try to control carbon emissions while also greatly boosting public and private investments in alternative fuel technologies. (And, of course, the proceeds from cap-and-trade auctions can be directed to do exactly that.) We should be using all the tools at our disposal. Now.