Posted by: Jeff | March 30, 2010

In Which I Solve Global Warming in Seven Paragraphs

Will Wilkinson responds to Mathew Yglesias’ thumping of David Boaz over the merits of the recent “Earth Hour” drive to get everyone to turn off their lights for an hour in acknowledgment of global warming.

Now, as a matter of fact, rising carbon emissions per capita is well-correlated with rising incomes and lengthening lifespans, as the animated chart below illustrates.

In light of this kind of evidence, policies that would slow growth in incomes and energy use in developing countries would likely also cause avoidable suffering and loss of life. In my opinion, an effective, globally coordinated system regulating carbon emissions is exceedingly unlikely — even if Matt and friends manage to win the culture war over attitudes toward the environment and energy use. Given the relative impotence of voluntary small-beer behavioral changes and the likelihood that ambitious global regulatory approaches will fail, the best hope for future coastal Bengalis and “African” children is for their countries over the next half-century or so to get wealthy enough that floods and droughts will cease to entail much risk of death or disease.

Well, uhm, yes but no at the same time. Rising carbon emissions per capita are only correlated with rising incomes and lengthening lifespans because increased energy production per capita is correlated with those things. And right now coal is a very cheap, very abundant, and very very dirty source of energy. So poor and developing countries make extensive use of it. And if the international community were to simply impose rules on those countries requiring them to greatly reduce their carbon emissions, that would indeed kneecap their ability to lift their populations out of poverty.

But as Wilkinson himself notes, the imposition of a global carbon regulated scheme seems extraordinarily unlikely. But the imposition of such a scheme on the national level, or even on the regional level of the developed West as a whole, doesn’t strike me as quite so far-fetched. Difficult, yes. But only difficult.

And that’s where it should be imposed, precisely because we in the West are not poor and still struggling to come into our developmental own. Unlike the coastal Bengalis, Africans or even the Chinese, we can take the economic hit that comes with reducing the amount of carbon we dump into the global ecosystem. (Not to mention we still make up the bulk of global emissions.) So it’s hardly unreasonable for Mathew Yglesias and other promoters of “Earth Hour” to champion norms of mass behavior that discourage that dumping. Nor is it unreasonable to observe that the competing norms championed by the likes of David Boaz and the “Human Achievement Hour” crowd are juvenile, petty, gluttonous and just plain stupid by comparison – even if both “Hours” are, as Wilkinson rightly observes, “consciousness-raising” stunts.

Particularly absurd is Boaz’s contention that “Earth Hour” involves the rejection of technology. If what our global civilization ultimately needs is the ability to produce large amounts of energy per capita, without at the same time demolishing the underlying ecosystems upon which that same civilization rests, then it would seem technology is the only thing that can save our bacon. We need to come up with cheap, efficient and abundant forms of clean energy, and we need to do it quick.

The only reason we have not yet done so is that dirty energy is economically attractive. And the whole (or pretty much the whole) point of the carbon pricing schemes – carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, etc. – currently being championed in the West is that they will help to make this situation less so. That will hopefully drive western markets to innovate clean energy sources, which can then be exported to the developing world.

Now, I happily admit this won’t be an easy thing to pull off. But I don’t see how it’s any more far-fetched than Wilkinson’s suggestion that we just energy-consume our way out of poverty, and hope that we do it fast enough to keep ahead of rising sea levels. And while I’m sure it’s a far more nuanced encapsulation of our global circumstance than what you’ll hear from the average “Earth Hour” promoter, it’s also a damn sight more nuanced than what the “Human Achievement Hour” crowd is saying as well.



  1. nice blog. keep it up. : – )

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