A New World for Global Warming

The global warming debate has taken a responsible turn.  Talk was cheaper than oil for a long time.  Countries around the world talked a lot and did next to nothing confident that they could blame the U.S. for not taking decisive action.   Domestic opponents had similar opportunities.   They could blame the “naysayers”.   To be a global warming opponent in good standing, all you really needed to do was go to the Al Gore movie and complain about the plight of the polar bears. 

For all the sound and fury about Kyoto, from 2000-2008 greenhouse gas emissions rose in both the EU and the U.S.   Guess emissions went up LESS?  Hint: not Europe. In other words, doing “nothing” worked about as well as doing something.  But our Euro friends got to stand on the moral high ground.  Last year, BTW, U.S. CO2 emission DROPPED by 2.8%, the biggest drop since we started to keep CO2 emission data.

But I should not be too snarky. Kyoto was and remains a seriously flawed agreement.   There was never any chance that the Senate would ratify it.   In fact, back in the 1990 ALL the Democrats and ALL the Republicans preemptively voted that they would not accept the agreement since it set up all sorts of silly expectations on the part of developing countries giving them a free ride and putting obligations only on the U.S. and other developed countries.  There is no way that we can achieve any serious climate change goals if we leave out the big polluters of the future.  China is the world’s biggest CO2 producer.  India, Indonesia, Brazil and others are growing fast.  You just cannot exempt the future trouble spots. Kyoto was too much about international wealth redistribution and not enough about environmental progress.

Nevertheless, U.S. must be part of a solution. I have been observing European efforts to create a carbon market. It is easy to find fault.  So far, it really doesn’t work, but we can learn from their experience.  If the U.S. pushes in the same direction, together we can make it work.

BTW – The French get  78% of their electricity from nuclear, which produces no greenhouse gas. Americans should be able to do as well, but we manage only around 20% and have not authorized & built a new plant since 1973.  We have to put nuclear power back into the mix.  It is safe and clean. Despite all the fears, In its sixty year history, NOBODY has ever died in a U.S. nuclear power accident.  It cannot be business as usual. Addressing climate change will require lifestyle changes. It will cost money and change comfortable relationships. Nobody wants to take these steps. I know this will come as a surprise, but not everyone is honest in carrying out their promises. Countries will obfuscate and cheat. Many world leaders were happy that the U.S. was not pushing the climate change solution bandwagon. They could make sanctimonious statements of concern and hide behind the U.S. while avoiding the really hard choices. Now we are stripping away this cover.

Just because we cannot do everything does not mean we have an excuse to do nothing. I am not in panic mode. I do not believe that we will cause irreparable damage if we do not address the problem immediately, but we certainly need to do something effective very soon.

Price will be the primary mechanism for sorting out this environmental problem and I have long advocated higher energy prices. Anyone who demands lower energy prices is not serious about solving environmental problems.

There is good news. Our experience with solving environmental problems has been good. We managed to address serious problems such as sewage, particulates, acid rain and CFCs more rapidly and at lower cost than anyone predicted. The proof is that we no longer worry much about these problems and they are no longer subjects of national debate. Climate change is a bigger challenge because it is international and carbon is ubiquitous, but if the U.S. and the EU are on board, it will work. That is the plus side of economy hegemony. We can set the standards that others must follow if they want to participate in world markets. We need to move while we still have such power.

There is lots of money to be made in greenhouse gas markets. We can do well by doing good. My concern is that erstwhile climate activists will stand in the way. You would not guess this from the rhetoric, but if you listen carefully you find the fault lines. Addressing climate change will mean higher energy prices (which “hurt the poor”) and job disruption and displacement (which hit union workers hardest).   Some businesses will be nimble enough to take advantage of the changing situation and make money; others not so much. I hear the complaints already. The quick and clever will do well.  Our environment will be better as we develop sustainable solutions, but opponents will only see those “left behind.”

BTW – The picture at top is a garden near Smithsonian now and the picture at the bottom is the same place in early February.   Right after the Obama inauguration, some people claimed that the Mall was damaged and may never recover.  It is hard to see on the sign, but it complains that only time will tell if it will come back.   A few months later, it did.  Nature is resilient.