Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Will he or won't he? (Climate economics controversy)

There's some considerable speculation, and even a little political pressure bought to bear, on the question of whether Barack Obama will now adopt a climate change agenda.

Here's an example from my Guardian this morning, written by William Becker for Yale Environment 360. Becker is, according to Yale 360, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a think-tank and pressure group.


This is something useful I extracted from Becker's editorial:

"...Obama should direct the Department of Energy to develop a methodology to calculate the full life-cycle benefits and costs of America's energy options, including social, environmental, security and ecosystem service impacts. Such a tool would turn the president's indiscriminate "all of the above" energy policy into a "best of the above" energy plan."

Now that's a little better.

There's a considerable amount of wishful thinking that somehow the environmental movement would succeed in causing a president so obviously urban and urbane, so obviously NOT a biologist or a wilderness person, to adopt the position of unilaterally reducing US environmental emissions, without some more moderate economic theory involved. Because, as I've said many times on this blog, reducing carbon emissions otherwise, especially unilaterally, without China and India, would require the abandonment of the economic growth policy. And America is just not going to do that right now. We're fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.

Please make an effort to understand what I'm saying here. I'm not saying we shouldn't reduce emissions -- I think it the most important thing we could do in the world right now. And I'm not arguing against the pressure groups and activism. We need those too.

And I'm not wedded to economic growth, either. I'm a fully paid up member of ISEE and a Herman Daly graduate student, for heaven's sake. I was trained in steady-state, ie, zero carbon economics.

But if we're to produce pressure on the president and congress to reduce emissions, we have to know what kind of economic policy the emissions reductions will be a central part of. And the answer is most certainly NOT a radical green, low or negative growth economics.

Just ask yourself, what was the most important issue in the recent election? The election was fought over the merits of market-driven economic growth with a strong government versus those of market-driven economic growth with a weak government. At no point anywhere did any serious candidate talk about reducing growth overall. For good reason -- that would have been the point at which he or she became a very non-serious candidate very, very quickly.

The American people are barely at the point in their national conversation where we can begin to talk about climate change rationally. It's taken two or more decades to get thus far. We're nowhere near the point where we could get them to talk about a radical green economics.

The only way forward that I can see, the only available compromise until we can somehow unhook ourselves from the growth platform, a desiderata which I believe will take decades to manifest itself in national political politics, is a kind of Green Keynesianism approached with a thorough splash of Coasian theory.

In other words, a pro-growth climate agenda based on clean energy and cost analysis.

You can sell that to the voters.

We have to work out the lifecycle costs of all the options and choose that which reduces emissions fastest for the least total internal and external costs, including some estimate of the very large costs of climate change itself. The voter education hurdle required to succeed with this is much less than the one required to succeed with a zero or low-growth platform.

There's also the problem of what happens if the west slows or stops growth, and thus disarms unilaterally, in the unexpectedly dangerous world, post-communism.

We will need to adopt a climate protectionist regime, in concert with Europe and the other democracies, by which we can bring the worlds remaining dictatorships and one-party states in line both with climate change and, eventually, democratic elections.

I see no other option. I'm willing to be proved wrong. But remember, I studied under the low and zero-growth economists, the Herman Dalys and Peter G. Browns of the world.

I know the flaws in their reasoning far too well to delude myself. Herman was wise enough to know that his agenda would likely never be adopted. Peter's ideas, although moderate in tone and vision, and although Peter himself is a moderate man, might have resulted in a kind of environmental Stalinism had they been carried out, mostly because of the sterling opportunities it gave to non-democratic elements in minority and pressure groups.

Now, more than ever, in the moment of possible success for the climate agenda, we have to be more careful than ever not to throw the democratic baby out with the hyper-capitalist bathwater.

1 comment:

Brooklyn Bumpkin said...

No need to post this comment, just wanted to point out it is "Barack" not "Barrack."