Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Climate Litmus

For weeks I had hardly mentioned climate change at all, now it seems I'm posting on it every other day. Today's comments are prompted by a Washington Post op-ed I saw over the weekend, hinting at a climate change litmus test for candidates in the upcoming elections. It contains some interesting suggestions, but before we start applying litmus tests--something I'm not generally in favor of, whatever the topic--we'd better be sure that the criteria make sense. In other words, they have to work in the real world, not just in the abstract.

While I agree with much of what Mr. McKibben says about the scale of the problem, the need to pursue multiple solutions, and the requirement for behavioral change, one of his "test questions" is simply wrong, and several of the others betray a preference for government not only to set the direction, lay out the rules, and measure the progress--as it should--but to drive the bus.

For example, although I've covered the topic of fuel taxation to near exhaustion, I think Mr. McKibben misses a really obvious solution in his prescription for top-down carbon taxes. Rather than trying to guess the level of taxation on fossil fuels that would "truly reflect the damage they do," we should determine the level of emissions reduction we need each year, establish a cap that reflects that, and let the market determine the cost of getting there. We've already seen in the SO2 market and the nascent CO2 credits market that substantial reductions can be achieved much more cheaply than experts have predicted. Any solution that doesn't have minimizing the cost of implementation as a primary objective will be vulnerable to postponement and waivers, the first time the economy slows down.

As to his assertion that China can't be held to the same standards, this is wrong for two important reasons. First, while it's certainly true that China bears little responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions that accumulated in the atmosphere during the development of European and American industrial society, it is equally true that any successor to the Kyoto Agreement that exempts China's future emissions will be a dead letter from the day it's signed. Because of their rapid growth, China and India must participate in the process and take on emissions targets, even if those targets were to reflect increases over current levels. Without targets, the path of least resistance will be to try to develop as we have, and there simply aren't enough resources or emissions sinks on the planet to permit this.

The other problem here is rooted in America's basic pragmatism. While civilizational guilt might arouse a vigorous response to climate change in a Europe that is organized around atonement for its history of colonialism and world wars, it just won't sell here. Competition will be much more effective at getting American companies and American consumers to address this issue, along the lines described in today's New York Times business section. As Mr. McKibben suggests, we are all in this together, but giving China and India a free pass on climate change, based on some dubious moral calculus, is both bad policy and bad science.

Apologies for the bizarre spelling errors that cropped up in the first version of this posting!

No comments: