A False Environmental Dilemma

Image created by Robert A. Rohde / Global Warming Art

Andy Revkin of the New York Times Dot Earth blog was kind enough to respond in comments to my post reflecting on the UNDP-sponsored panel on “Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Climate Change” that he moderated last Monday night. To recap the most salient part: The various speakers posed a persuasive argument, I thought, for pursuing integrated strategies that encouraged local economic improvement with measures to protect the environment and help mitigate climate change. Yet their arguments also seemed to underscore the folly of suggestions that the U.S. should stop pursuing an overt climate policy and instead concentrate on the more popular idea of a progressive energy policy that could eventually have some of the desired climate consequences. I mentioned Andy, along with Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, as some of those calling for that change of strategy.

Andy posted the following comment in reply:

A thoughtful reaction to the panels, but I think you have my reasoning on splitting energy from the broader climate agenda backward. I actually think efforts to develop a “comprehensive” climate bill and treaty have held back far cheaper actions that could help conserve earth’s biological riches. Why restrict a forest’s value to its carbon tonnage? Why wait for an elusive global deal among 192 disparate parties as a help to biodiversity when you can act promptly on things like tiger conservation now — for a bargain basement price?


Andy, I’m in 100% accord with you about the possibilities for inexpensive, direct, highly effective actions that can and should be taken to protect the environment irrespective of any climate policies. Your example of how practicable it would be for Apple or some other well-heeled patron to save wild tigers is a perfect case in point. And as we both know, the 25 projects honored with Equator Awards on Monday night fall into that same category: all of them took shape without any centralized authority making them happen; they probably couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened if some central authority had been calling the shots; they carried local economic benefits that made them much more than expressions of love for nature.

But you’re arguing about a conflict that doesn’t exist. Nothing—nothing—involved in climate legislation prevents such actions. Nor, to my knowledge (and correct me if I’m wrong), is anyone pushing to mitigate climate change also arguing that these kinds of beneficial actions should be held hostage until effective global curbs on CO2 are in place. You’re setting up a false dilemma.

We both know that the rationale for developing a price on carbon, whether through cap-and-trade or direct taxes or other means, is to help create incentives for industries and other actors in our market system to innovate reductions in CO2 emissions or their equivalents. It isn’t supposed to be a complete solution in itself: it’s supposed to be a firm shove to get our economy moving in a better direction under its own power. Setting a fair carbon price is a difficult and political problem, and the results can be highly imperfect (as the extensive gaming of the permit trading in the E.U. demonstrates), but even an imperfect price can be treated as a work in progress.

And the alternative to having a carbon price of some kind is to continue leaving it as, at best, an implicit part of economic calculations, which Ángel Gurría of the OECD (and, I suspect, the other members of your panel) seemed to think was a critically bad idea.

The course of action that you prefer, I take it, is to push for energy policy reforms and to much more substantially fund research into cleaner energy. Again, I’m completely with you on the latter, and I can’t think of anyone in favor of carbon curbs who would oppose it. At most there is a difference of opinion over how much to emphasize the encouragement of clean energy innovation versus CO2 regulation. The irony of recent rightwing opposition to cap and trade is that early on they favored it as a market solution to the problem, as opposed to what they derided as a Soviet-style folly of picking ideologically favored technologies to develop. (Which is one reason I’m cynical about everyone jumping enthusiastically aboard the clean, cheap energy bandwagon if the “distraction” of carbon regulation goes away.)

Energy policy reforms are good on their own terms. But they aren’t a substitute for a climate policy for the reason that Gurría mentioned: it’s much too easy to end up with policies that promote clean or cheap energy but do nothing about the climate. And although climate is definitely not the be-all-and-end-all of environmental issues, it is one with consequences far too serious to be ignored.

The obvious retort is that, so far, attempts to forge meaningful climate policy in the U.S. have gone down in flames. And as the sorry performance of the Copenhagen meeting demonstrated, international diplomacy on climate is also dismal. The U.S., Europe and the fast-rising industrial powers like China and India are all using one another as scapegoats for why they shouldn’t reduce carbon emissions more aggressively; some of them may have better arguments than others, but so be it. I get it. The political process seems hopeless.

So why not pragmatically abandon political climate reforms in favor of whatever other methods can accomplish? Half a loaf, and all that.

Two reasons. First, technological inspiration may arrive in a flash but technological change takes time. Coal-fired power plants operate, what, for about 50 years on average? Replacing our energy infrastructure will take considerable time even when better alternatives exist. More investment might help speed up that timetable but it won’t work miracles. Meanwhile, industrial CO2 will continue to pour into the air and exert a long-range, cumulative effect on climate. So why not continue to at least try to cut those emissions by regulation in the meantime, especially if there are ways to do it that would create more incentives for energy innovation?

Second, I refuse to give up on climate policy because stupid political obstacles are not immutable facts of nature. The filibuster rule, reckless partisanship and spongy leadership in the Senate undid legislation this year, not insufficient understanding of the need for it. Different nations may all have different priorities that make it well nigh impossible to negotiate carbon restrictions; that doesn’t preclude the possibility of countries taking small steps on their own that might help break the deadlocks.

I wish it were otherwise, but there seems to be no way to make progress fast enough on this problem without securing political commitments to address it head-on. If policymakers set out to create a climate policy, what we’ll end up with (if we’re lucky) is a compromised climate policy that will assuredly push for cleaner energy. If policymakers set out to create an energy policy, what we’ll end up with (if we’re lucky) is a compromised energy policy that will assuredly push for cleaner energy… and very possibly be irrelevant to climate.

And outside of overt policy, we should do everything possible to foster technological progress and encourage prudent choices by industry and consumers alike. That, of course, is the very point of setting a carbon price.

You and I may reasonably disagree both about the urgency of climate change action and about the realistic possibilities for remaking our industrial base to reduce its carbon emissions. But the argument that advocates for climate policies are impeding progress on that issue—or on any other environmental cause—seems like hogwash.

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