Climate of Fear VIII.

In September 2014 the New York Times published a hard-headed essay by Robert Stavins, one of the authors for multiple reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[1] He made some important points.

First, Americans first became sufficiently concerned about the environment to take action back in the late 1960s, when air and water pollution had become too obvious to be ignored. Then their attention turned to the issue of climate change during the 1980s and 1990s. Joining in a movement with other advanced economies, the United States signed a series of international agreements to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. As a result of those agreements, emissions by these countries were held flat or even reduced.

Second, developing nations (China, India, South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa) refused to join in such agreements because their own industrialization is both carbon-fueled and essential to raise the living standards of their people. China leads this process: China produces 29 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions and will pass the United States as the world’s leading total carbon emitter before mid-century. None of the developing countries want to check their own emissions because they fear that it will check economic growth. Their preferred solution is that the advanced countries restrict their emissions even more than they have to make space for the emissions of developing countries.

Third, unlike economists such as Robert Frank and Eduardo Porter (see: Climate of Fear II), Stavins doesn’t try to sugar-coat the costs of limiting emissions. The UN wants to hold the temperature rise to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial temperature. That would entail reducing carbon emission by 40 to 70 percent by 2050. Stavins argues that this would reduce economic growth by 0.06 percent per year from now to the end of the 21st Century. In total, that would cumulate to an annual reduction of economic activity of 5 percent.

Furthermore, even those predictions depend to some extent upon the rapid development of cheap alternative energy sources and technologies to limit emissions. Absent such cheap new technologies and the cost estimates are more than twice as high. Stavins appears skeptical that this will happen. Furthermore, cutting carbon emissions will require a large-scale use of nuclear energy and a world-wide carbon tax.

Fourth, the politics of meeting popular expectations raise a huge barrier to action. This isn’t a “democracy versus autocracy” issue. The rulers of China and India are sensitive to the economic aspirations of their people, even if they aren’t real democracies or democracies at all. Greenhouse gases are invisible and their impact is slow to show itself, rather than dramatic in form. So what if the people of the Seychelles have to take to the boats? Imposing costs immediately to avoid something bad in the future (or to someone else in the present) isn’t going to be popular anywhere. Similarly, the UN is just trying to limit the rise in temperature in the future, not to roll-back the 0.8 degrees Celsius rise that has already taken place. “If you make big sacrifices, then things will stay the way that they are now or get a little worse.” Try putting that on a bumper-sticker, then run for office.

Couple of things worth thinking about. On the one hand, is the best we can hope for a patchwork of wavering national efforts to limit emissions through administrative action? On the other hand, is there a way to make higher energy prices and more nuclear reactors palatable to voters? Or do we just adapt by drilling for deep water and moving back from the coasts?

[1] Robert N. Stavins, “Climate Realities,” NYT, 21 September 2014.