Climate of Fear I

Climate change is an important, but testy, issue. It involves a number of distinct, but related, problems. The problems are more political than scientific or technological.

Burning carbon emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Coal, oil, and gasoline powered the previous Industrial Revolutions. Most of the greenhouse gasses of the past came from what are now wealthy Western nations. Now, non-Western nations have embarked on a headlong pursuit of industrialization as a way of raising the living standards for their people. Developing countries now produce two-thirds of all greenhouse gases, and China is the single biggest emitter. China accounts for 28 percent of all emissions. This is more than the United States and the European Union put together. The greenhouses gases of the present and future are chiefly the product of these late-industrializers.

First, how do we cut future greenhouse gas emissions without telling non-Western countries that they can’t industrialize? One answer appears to be heavy investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy. Yet China and India have as much access to solar and wind energy as do Western countries. What they don’t have are well-organized, articulate environmental lobbies. Taking a coldly economic view, the rulers lean toward carbon. They aren’t very interested in developing alternative energy when they have a lot of coal.

Second, who pays for the adjustments caused by the climate change that is already underway? Much attention focuses on countries suffering from “a case of bad latitude.” Climate change threatens “nations” on coral atolls in ways that don’t seem so threatening elsewhere. The Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean are in danger of disappearing under rising seas. Bangladesh and the Caribbean Islands could face the same fate. (If we get lucky, so could Florida.)

The expectation in some areas is that the wealthy nations of the West will pay. “Don’t tell us you can’t cut emissions, you can’t give money, while you bask in the rich way of life you enjoy now. You know your emissions are damaging us. Help us out here.”—Ronald Jean Jumeau, the Seychelle Islands’ ambassador to the UN for Climate Change. He probably shouldn’t try that attitude on with the Chinese.

Third, people are afraid that the costs of stopping or—better yet—turning back climate change would cause a significant slow-down in economic growth. Alternative energy sources were estimated to cost more than our little friend, carbon, or to involve unacceptable risks (like Chernobyl). A heavy tax on carbon use offers the best means to shift consumption from carbon to non-carbon sources. Many enviro-friendly[1] people are willing to have someone pay it.

Who pays for the investment? Germany has tried taxing carbon to subsidize the development of wind and solar energy. First, they decided to exempt the export-oriented industries from the tax because these are often energy-intensive producers. Higher costs could reduce international competitiveness. German national prosperity through exports came before climate. Then the higher costs of carbon to subsidize alternative energy sources did not produce comparable supplies of wind and solar energy. Instead, energy prices went up. Now the German government has begun scaling-back the subsidies.

Justin Gillis and Coral Davenport, “Push for New Pact on Climate Change Is Plagued by Old Divide of Wealth,” NYT, 21 September 2014, p. 10.

[1] It’s too bad there isn’t some clever euphemism for this constituency in the way that “420 friendly” is a euphemism for dopers.


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