Saturday, July 26, 2008

Once again, the hard truths

These things keep getting pointed out--and pointed out--by people who believe in global warming, no less--and they keep getting ignored in favor of lurid fantasies of Nuremberg trials for "deniers."

The latest to speak the truths that really are inconvenient is Samuel Thernstrom:

Here is a simple truth that everyone who actually cares about climate change should understand: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions costs money. Reducing them a lot will cost a lot of money. Drastically reducing them very quickly will cost vast amounts of money. And, no matter what we do, cutting them enough to stop warming without the cooperation of major developing economies such as China and India will be impossible. These facts do not mean that we should do nothing to cut emissions, by any means--but understanding these inconvenient truths must be the first step towards crafting a realistic climate policy.


It is relatively easy to make very modest reductions in emissions; in the short term, it is virtually impossible to cut them deeply enough and quickly enough to actually stop warming. We can save money and cut emissions by picking the low-hanging fruit--taking advantage of opportunities to eliminate waste and conserve energy. That is happening, and it will continue. But when that's done, we will still need to climb the biggest tree imaginable and pick it clean if we want to curtail warming--and that is not going to be an economical proposition in the immediate future, no matter what Gore tells you. No government policy could make it so.


Gore promises that switching to renewable energy sources will save us from high energy prices--conveniently ignoring that renewables cost more than the high-carbon content fuels that Gore wants to eliminate. You don't make energy cheaper by eliminating the most abundant and affordable sources of it. It is not possible to cut the cost of energy by shutting down every power plant in the country that runs on the cheapest, most abundant, domestically available fuel--coal (which generates 49 percent of our electric power)--as well as the second largest source of the same, natural gas (20 percent). Prematurely retiring more than $500 billion worth of energy infrastructure is not the key to renewed economic growth, to say the least. It couldn't be done, but if it were attempted, it would cause economic ruin. If America thinks that this is really what climate policy demands--and what it promises--it may well decide it prefers the Bush approach after all. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what happened the last time that Gore controlled climate policy.


If we are to have any hope at all of crafting sensible climate policy in the coming years, we must at least learn from our worst mistakes, and have a healthy respect for the risks that poor policy may entail. An important new book from one of the nation's foremost environmental economists, William Nordhaus, makes this abundantly clear. If we do nothing to halt it, global warming is likely to cause $23 trillion in damages by the end of the century. Sound policies to address it would be highly beneficial--generating as much as $3 trillion in net benefits--but poorly designed climate policies could be nearly as damaging as warming itself. Gore's proposal to cut U.S. emissions by 90 percent by 2050, Nordhaus calculates, would have a net social cost of $21 trillion--the equivalent of taking $63,000 from every person in America. The danger that climate change poses is twofold, therefore: the risk of environmental damage, and the risk of economic disaster arising from poorly designed climate policies.

Pay particular attention to those highlighted lines in the last paragraph. Gore's proposal would do nearly as much economic damage as doing nothing, in half the time (and those are damages just in the US--one can assume comparable, albeit lesser, costs elsewhere--whereas the costs of global warming above are presumably spread worldwide).

I am largely agnostic on the global warming issue (though leaning more towards the deniers in recent weeks, based on new evidence). However, I have always been of the position that anything we do about global warming must be informed by whether and how effective it would be, relative to its costs.

Token penances like carbon credits are worse than useless; they're not even being offered to someone who could really do something about the problem--instead, they merely divert attention and resources from actual solutions.

If we're going to do this, it must be done right. Doing it wrong would be just as bad as doing nothing at all...if not worse.


No comments: