Wednesday, July 4, 2012

On Revkin's blog -- again

Andy Revkin, the New York Times blogger who writes about energy and the environment, has kindly posted a short essay I wrote on the difficult nexus between climate policy, democracy, and the strength of the West.

I'm not sure I got my ideas across as well as I would have liked, since my thoughts about this are far from finished, if they every will be. Certainly some of the folks who commented misunderstand me. But the piece is published now.

In general, and what this is about -- I think there's a much overlooked problem in the environmental movement and in environmental science regarding the context of all our fine debating about climate policy.

Free inquiry and advocacy don't happen in a vacuum. They occur in free countries, what we might call the West, or the "free world" (to re-purpose a phrase from the Cold War), primarily North America, western Europe, Japan, and Australia. India and Brazil and some other Asian and Latin American states might be included too. But much of what is recommended for policy by climate activists would weaken the free world economically and politically, perhaps severely, and strengthen the hand of Russia and China, at a time in global history when we can least afford this to happen.

I simply don't think that this would work out that well.

The free world is already economically, politically and even militarily weaker than I would like us to be, going into these coming decades of climate strife. It would be better if we could come out the other side without another slide into totalitarianism like those that occurred in the twentieth century.

I know this is a hard pill for a lot of leftists to swallow. And the connection is perhaps more visible to ex-servicemen and women than it is to those who haven't served.

It certainly isn't a welcome thought to some of our climate activists. But it is what it is. There's not much we can do about it except to try to understand the situation as rationally as we can.

The specific proposal I made in this particular essay is that the current oil-and-gas boom in the US and Canada will make the West stronger in the short term, and that this is a good thing, even though it will add climate emissions. In making this statement I depart from the orthodox viewpoint among climate activists, and some scientists, which is that we need to more or less immediately stop using or drastically curtail fossil fuels.

I also make some admittedly vague proposals for using the proceeds of the oil boom in Keynesian fashion to buy useful renewable energy and energy efficiency capital, to help maintain that geopolitical strength in the long term.

But the main thing is economic strength. If we were stronger economically and politically, that prestige and clout would give us a much better chance of getting to a global climate agreement. The free world might even, heaven forbid, reverse the current, rather unthinking, trend towards global free trade and institute a system of climate-based protectionism, to give force to our requirements that the entire globe reduce emissions.

In the absence of that kind of clout, the Chinese and Russians simply won't follow our lead, and it wouldn't make any difference whether the free world reduced emissions unilaterally or not, because the rest of the planet wouldn't join in. We might slow climate change a little, but we couldn't stabilize, and the risk of climate instability would linger for decades, even centuries, despite our best efforts.

A prerequisite to a stable climate is therefore that the planet be politically dominated by free countries, of which the West is the only viable current grouping. Yet the West is in danger of declining at exactly the wrong moment, geopolitically speaking.

For the record, I believe the West might also succeed in getting to a similar place of strength if we simply pulled out all the green economic stops, in a massive use of green Keynesian stimulus, buying the energy efficiency capital we need by borrowing against our own future strength. We might not then need the tar sands and oil shales, and this would be a better overall solution because we would be able to reduce emissions and re-stabilize the climate more quickly, and thus avoid the need for some of the more extreme adaptation measures.

Either alternative would be more satisfactory to me than the current situation. Although I believe it would work, I don't believe the second one is politically viable right now, while the first one -- the strengthening of the West through a change in the balance of global energy supplies -- will probably happen anyway, in the absence of any overt political decision. The key would be to use this clout intelligently to achieve the long-term global climate policy, as well as to encourage democratization around the world, but particularly in Russia and China.

Therefore I choose to welcome the new supplies, albeit in a careful, qualified way, rather than simply decry them as George Monbiot and Bill McKibben do, in more orthodox fashion, in these articles here and here.

All this debate and cogitation comes of course in the height of a record-breaking North America heatwave and another dangerous Asian monsoon, both of which might also focus our minds on the problem.

There's more in this vein on Revkin's blog where the piece is published, and yet more, more than you would ever want to read, on my sidebar to the right where I keep my favorite pieces from over the years.

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