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To overcome this problem, Galiana and Green somewhat naively suggest creating a system of research competition overseen by a panel of independent experts. Oddly, they do not consider deregulating energy markets so as to provide greater incentives for private R&D and investment in new energy production and improvements in efficiency. In any case, Galiana and Green make a very strong case that current energy technologies cannot meet the ambitious emissions reductions goals being advocated by the Obama Administration in the U.S. and by the United Nations bureaucrats at the Copenhagen climate change conference without clobbering the global economy.
Interestingly, there may a current technology that could go a long way toward reducing carbon dioxide emissions, fast breeder reactors. Since they do not burn fossil fuels, they produce no carbon dioxide. Fast breeders are nuclear power plants that can produce more fuel (about 30 percent more) than they use. Basically, they operate using a fast neutron chain reaction that transforms abundant non-fissile uranium-238 to fissile plutonium-239, which can then be reprocessed for use as nuclear fuel. An additional benefit is that they can be configured to produce electricity by burning up highly radioactive nuclear waste and the plutonium removed from nuclear weapons.
And it gets better; the radioactive wastes generated by fast breeder reactors after their fuel is recycled decays in only a few hundred years instead of the tens of thousands it takes to render the wastes from conventional reactors harmless. Because the reactors produce more fuel than they use, humanity would be able to transforms the thousands of tons of refined uranium it now has into fuel and therefore not have to mine any more for thousands of years. And new fuel reprocessing technologies have largely allayed concerns that the plutonium produced by fast reactors could be diverted and used to produce nuclear weapons. In other words, fast breeders could be the ultimate in renewable energy.
The Progress Solution
Comedian Groucho Marx once famously quipped, “Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?” Many people are worried about “intergenerational equity” with regard to how global warming will affect future generations. But perhaps Marx had the right question.
Consider that University of Groningen economist Angus Maddison calculates that annual per capita incomes in real dollars in 1900 for Finland averaged about $1,700 and for Denmark were around $3,000. Today average incomes are $28,000 per capita in Finland, and in Denmark are $33,000. In other words, contemporary Finns are 16-times richer than they were three generations ago, and modern Danes are 11-times better off. The true intergenerational equity question becomes: How much would you have demanded that your much poorer ancestors give up in order to prevent the climate change we are now experiencing? We stand in exactly the same relation to people who will be living in 2100.
According to Maddison, total global GDP in 1900 in real dollars was about $2 trillion. Today, the World Bank calculates that in 2008 global GDP stands at $60 trillion. In other words, global GDP increased by 30-times over the past century. Dividing the World Bank figure up by the world’s population of 6.8 billion, one finds that global average per capita income is around $8,800. Of course, it is not equally distributed among people.
What about the future? If global economic growth continues at around 3 percent per year, total GDP in real dollars would reach $860 trillion in 2100. Many scenarios, including those used by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggest that world population will stabilize or even fall below 8.5 billion people by 2100. This yields an average income of over $100,000 per person in three generations. So should people living now and making a global average of $8,800 per year be forced to lower their incomes in order to boost the incomes of future generations that in some IPCC scenarios will have incomes in 2100 over $107,000 per capita in developed countries and over $66,000 in developing countries?
Let’s take the worst case scenario devised by British economist Nicholas Stern in which global warming is so bad that it reduces the incomes of people living in 2100 by 20 percent below what it would otherwise have been without climate change. That implies that global GDP would rise to only $688 trillion by 2100. That would reduce average incomes in 2100 to only $81,000 per capita. In other words, people living three generations hence with the worst consequences of climate change would still be about 10-times richer than people living today are. Another way to think of that much future climate damage is that it is equivalent to reducing global economic growth from 3 percent to 2.7 percent over the next 90 years.
So finally, it is surely not unreasonable to argue that if one wants to help future generations deal with climate change, the best policies would be those that encourage rapid economic growth. This would endow future generations with the wealth and superior technologies that could be used to handle whatever comes at them including climate change. In other words, one could argue that, in order to truly address the problem of climate change, responsible policy makers meeting in Copenhagen should select courses of action that move humanity from a slow growth trajectory to a high growth trajectory, especially for the poorest developing countries.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.
This article is a slightly edited version of an article that appears in the Swedish magazine NEO.