Fools and scoundrels
“If anyone tries to tell you that uncertainty about climate change is a reason for inaction, he’s either a fool or a scoundrel. Probably a bit of both.” ~ Mark Kleiman
Kleiman makes a number of assumptions in his piece before reaching this one. He assumes some hypothetical climate change statistics and then assumes that because he has made such a speculation that the policy going forward should be precautionary against said speculative fiction. But simply because Mark Kleiman says that we might see an 8 degree (C) increase in temperature by 2100 does not make it so.
Ordinarily, it is the proponents of action who bear the burden of persuasion. But in this case political inaction means, in effect, licensing a massive gamble, though no individual chooses to make it. Rather, the gamble would be the outcome of billions of uncoordinated self-interested decisions: precisely the sort of process that, in the absence of external costs, leads to efficient outcomes. But none of the arguments for the freedom of economic activity applies to activities with huge, indirect, deferred, and diffuse external costs: by contrast with Adam Smith’s baker, there is simply no “invisible hand” mechanism that directs private action in such a situation in the direction of the public interest.
Actually, just like with any free market, climate change will respond to market pressures coupled with government incentives. Rising fuel costs will reduce the amount of fuel used and the less people drive and fewer things are shipped via truck and freighter, the lower our CO2 emissions will be. The government can invest in mass transit to help ease in a different norm for transportation as traditional fuel, and therefore traditional means of travel, becomes more and more prohibitively expensive. Private innovators can be allowed to come up with the next revolutionary inventions in renewable energy and green transportation. The government can issue tax credits to innovators and consumers who participate in the green revolution. They can also provide more grants to college students pursuing science and engineering degrees.
These are positive steps rather than punitive ones. The punitive measures should be directed at individual players – polluters and industries which have the largest hand in producing emissions. Cap and trade is too broad and too subject to capture to be effective. Targeting specific polluters makes more sense, while nudging normal Americans toward a different energy and transportation model in the future.
And even after all these measures are in place – whether they are positive or punitive – there are still the twin-elephants in the room: China and India, which are unlikely to rein in economic growth in order to appease climate policy. One benefit of market-based, positive reform is that whatever green technology and infrastructure advancements we come up with here we can export later on to the big polluters overseas. When those countries are wealthy enough to care about climate change rather than starving kids on the street, then we can talk global climate change.
The market will determine prices of fossil fuels and sooner than later those will begin to rise on their own. Governments can spur that along by removing subsidies of fossil fuels (and plant-based fuels like ethanol) and reinvesting that money into mass-transit infrastructure. In the meantime, it’s probably best not to stick a knife in our own economic future lest we simply find ourselves even further back in the race against Asia. What we need are more scientists and engineers working on technological solutions to climate problems, rather than a bunch of lobbyists and their captured congressmen working on voodoo policies like cap and trade.