Climate Change: Moral Imperative or Technological Problem?

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Al Gore, the winner of the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election, will testify momentarily on climate change before House and Senate committees. Skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg will also be testifying. The whole show should be on C-Span .

As an appetizer, superb WaPo columnist Robert Samuelson sorts out the make-believe from the possible in addressing climate change. To wit:

Global warming has gone Hollywood, literally and figuratively. The script is plain. As Gore says, solutions are at hand. We can switch to renewable fuels and embrace energy-saving technologies, once the dark forces of doubt are defeated. It's smart and caring people against the stupid and selfish. Sooner or later, Americans will discover that this Hollywood version of global warming (largely mirrored in the media) is mostly make-believe.

Most of the many reports on global warming have a different plot. Despite variations, these studies reach similar conclusions. Regardless of how serious the threat, the available technologies promise at best a holding action against greenhouse gas emissions. Even massive gains in renewables (solar, wind, biomass) and more efficient vehicles and appliances would merely stabilize annual emissions near present levels by 2050. The reason: Economic growth, especially in poor countries, will sharply increase energy use and emissions….

…there are no instant solutions, and a political dilemma dogs most possibilities. What's most popular and acceptable (say, more solar) may be the least consequential in its effects; and what's most consequential in its effects (a hefty energy tax) may be the least popular and acceptable.

The actual politics of global warming defies Hollywood's stereotypes. It's not saints vs. sinners. The lifestyles that produce greenhouse gases are deeply ingrained in modern economies and societies. Without major changes in technology, the consequences may be unalterable. Those who believe that addressing global warming is a moral imperative face an equivalent moral imperative to be candid about the costs, difficulties and uncertainties.

Whole column here .

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  1. Thank God there are people like Samuelson, treating this issue like what it really is: a front in the culture war against Hollywood.

    You should ignore people concerned about global warming, because they think they’re better’n you. Thanks, Bob, that’s a lot of help.

  2. Those who believe that addressing global warming is a moral imperative face an equivalent moral imperative to be candid about the costs, difficulties and uncertainties.

    Not really. You’re basically saying that a person can’t advocate doing anything without also arguing against his own position.

    But I’d say we’re unlikely to see an article titled “The Problem With Free Markets” in Reason anytime soon.

  3. Related item: My new favorite word-of-the-day is thermophobia.

  4. Can somebody please remind me when Al Gore said that technological development wasn’t a necessary part of addressing this moral problem?

    Leaking sewer line: public health issue or repair job?

  5. One problem with free markets may be that the planet can’t sustain them. Nah, that can’t be.

  6. Economic growth, especially in poor countries, will sharply increase energy use and emissions….

    No snark intended, Ron, but doesn’t this contradict what you’ve been saying all along? That economic growth leads to better technology which leads to less emissions?

  7. Thank God there are people like Samuelson, treating this issue like what it really is: a front in the culture war against Hollywood.

    I’m impressed that you can transform a column talking about the complexity of a real system into a red/blue issue.

  8. To twist your sewer line analogy, Joe, it isn’t enough to convince the rich folks to shit less. The po’ folks want indoor plumbing, too.

    The hip solutions to global warming may be ineffective, particularly when counterbalanced by the “two-500-megawatt-coal-fired-plants-a-week-in-China” trend in the developing world. I actually found one of Bailey’s earlier asides rather compelling when he spoke about the terrawatts of power required in the future, and how exactly we can get there. Sorry I can’t provide a citation.

  9. Actually, that sounds like a fairly accurate assessment of the way that Gore and some others are presenting the global warming issue. I wouldn’t call it a “Hollywood” approach as much as I would call it dramatically oversimplified. Neither Gore nor anyone else has any idea whether the warming trend is a serious problem, whether we can do anything about it unilaterally (meaning in the West alone–the rest of the world will ignore anything that we suggest, emissions-wise), or whether the trend is reversible at all.

    I’m not suggesting that we assume that everything will work itself out, since there could certainly be some unpleasant consequences if the warming trend continues, but a little more rationality and a little less politics and “passion” might be nice.

  10. You should ignore people concerned about global warming, because they think they’re better’n you.

    I take the message to be that you should consider that you will pay too for greener policies, however green you may think you are already, and not just the rich, evil people.

  11. Economic growth in poorer countries will initially lead to higher emissions and energy use. HOwever, as technology improves n those countries and becomes more efficient energy use and emissions will go down. Aoso a growing middle and upper class will demand better environmental conditions when the country has sufficiently reached a prosperious level.

  12. Samuelson is the one making it a red/blue culture war issue by talking about the “Hollywood version of global warming.” Certain “Hollywood” types (and Al Gore et al.) have been asserting that this is a real problem for a long time. For years, conservatives denied this, assigning all kinds of bad motives to those sounding the alarm. Now seemingly overniight, their argument has changed from “It’s a made-up problem concocted by liberals” to “OK, it’s a real problem but we can’t do anything about it anyway, so shut up.” Yes, it’s a very complex problem, but excuse me if I choose to ignore the analyses of those who denied the whole situation until about five munites ago.

  13. AC,

    I transformed it into a blue/red pissing match? ME?

    What the hell is “Global warming has gone Hollywood, literally and figuratively.” supposed to be?

    How about “It’s smart and caring people against the stupid and selfish. Sooner or later, Americans will discover that this Hollywood version of global warming (largely mirrored in the media) is mostly make-believe.”

    Or perhaps, “The actual politics of global warming defies Hollywood’s stereotypes.”

    Yeah, bad joe, reading such innocent statements as having something to do with partisan wedge politics.

  14. I think the real story here, is that Gore and Lomborg are just the dog and pony show, to announce Congress’ intention to introduce massive new taxes and regulations.

  15. Jose,

    Don’t you think developing countries would be better off if we reduced the environmental damage we’re doing to them (how do you think stronger storms and higher sea levels are going to go over in Bangladesh?), and developed alternate energy technologies that allowed them to meet the growing needs without fossile fuels?

    On what planet is it better for poor countries to make keep economic development dependent on a finite resource which rich countries are increasing their own demand for?

  16. Hm, this time in English:

    On what planet is it better for poor countries to be dependent for their economic growth on a finite resource while rich countries are increasing their own demand for that resource?

  17. “Economic growth in poorer countries will initially lead to higher emissions and energy use.”

    …if energy technology remains the same.

    Once upon a time, economic growth in poor countries would lead to larger areas of forest cleared for fields. Once upon a time, telecommunications growth in poor countries would lead to thousands of miles of land lines.

  18. But I’d say we’re unlikely to see an article titled “The Problem With Free Markets” in Reason anytime soon.

    Please, Dan, enlighten us: What IS the problem with free markets?

  19. One problem with free markets may be that the planet can’t sustain them. Nah, that can’t be.

    or phrased another way…One problem with people is that the planet can’t sustain them.

    What ever shall we do about that?

  20. Please, Dan, enlighten us: What IS the problem with free markets?

    Well, for starters they tend to lead to environmental problems.

  21. No snark intended, Ron, but doesn’t this contradict what you’ve been saying all along? That economic growth leads to better technology which leads to less emissions?

    If the poor countries are allowed to use clean technologies, then the emissions will be less. Considering the “huff-huff-blow your house down” posturing of the US against Iran, which is trying to USE clean nuclear power, the fact is that the poor countries will have to rely on dirtier technologies for the time being, while waiting until the developed countries stop being run by two-faced hypocrites (i.e. politicians)

  22. Well, for starters they tend to lead to environmental problems.

    Really? You mean the other economic systems DO NOT?

  23. Once upon a time, economic growth in poor countries would lead to larger areas of forest cleared for fields.

    It is the other way around. Cleared fields is the result of POOR economic growth and inefficiency. Economic growth leads to migration towards cities (who the hell wants to be a poor peasant, anyway?), which means more land available for fewer individuals.

  24. Don’t you think developing countries would be better off if we reduced the environmental damage we’re doing to them (how do you think stronger storms and higher sea levels are going to go over in Bangladesh?), and developed alternate energy technologies that allowed them to meet the growing needs without fossile fuels?

    Problem is that the “alternative” energy technologies cannot match oil for energy exchange per gram. The only competitive technology is nuclear, which is still on top of the environmentalists’ Big List of No-no’s. The hypocrisy levels when it comes to nuclear energy use by countries that are not part of the “exclusive club” are overwhelming (and would be laughable if not so tragic).

  25. fyodor: No snark taken. 😉 The answer is both. What is going to happen is that poor countries will use cleaner techs, but they will also use more energy producing more CO2. I explore some of that with my dispatch from the UN Climate Change negotiations in Nairobi, “Carbon Reduction or Poverty Reduction, Not Both.”

  26. Gamito,

    You missed the “once upon a time” part. Prior to the creation of industrial and commerce-enhancing technologies, economic growth was tied to the acreage of tilled land.

    What you’re describing is true now that those technologies have developed.

  27. “Problem is that the “alternative” energy technologies cannot match oil for energy exchange per gram.”

    Yet.

    “The only competitive technology is nuclear, which is still on top of the environmentalists’ Big List of No-no’s.”

    A fair point, but this is changing. IIRC, the head of the Sierra Club has come out for nuclear as a response to global warming.

  28. “Really? You mean the other economic systems DO NOT?”

    C’mon, dude; don’t you remember the ecoparadise which was the CCCP?

    And we all know what makes the markets evil; there are winners and losers.

  29. It is unfair to consider a variable of “x” environmental damage without considering a “y” variable of economic goods, services and technological advances. And we can debate who is doing the greater amount of environmental damage, the developing world or the developed world, in a venue with more space.

    As a general rule, developed countries are evironmentally cleaner than developing countries. Affluence allows counties like the U.S. to buy greater level of environmental goods. Perhaps more simply, when you have a full belly and a roof over your head, you have the luxury of worrying about things like biodiversity. So, one approach to global warming is to encourage market-based economies and free trade in developingt countries to accelerate the economic development process in developing countries. Of course, it would help if developed countries like the U.S. would dismantle trade barriers like agricultural subsidies. (And if well-intentioned but wrong-headed environmentalists would abandon the idea of “fair trade.”) It would also help if we accelerated our use of fossil fuels. The greater the demand for fossil fuels, the higher the price and the quicker we achieve greater degrees of scarcity. The higher the price, the more attractive alternative fuels become. This is why, Joe, real environmentalists drive SUVs.

  30. What you’re describing is true now that those technologies have developed.

    Yes, Joe, but it is not like those countries where they clear the land now would have to REINVENT these technologies. The people there can simply BUY them, or let others invest in the land. The BIG problem in many countries right now is the unwillingness of the armed thugs (er, the governments) to let people: own their OWN land, invest, and let foreigners invest. Result: People strip the land in a Tragedy of the Commons scenario. It does NOT have to be like that, but one thing is sure: The developed countries (especially the US and the Europeans) and Bono DO want it like that.

  31. Jose,

    We have 5% of the world’s population and produce 25% of its carbon emissions. The idea that more economic activity means better environmental practices is nice, but not, you know, true.

  32. Gamito,

    I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were a lunatic.

    Have a nice day, and try not to let Bono kill you.

  33. On what planet is it better for poor countries to be dependent for their economic growth on a finite resource while rich countries are increasing their own demand for that resource?

    Umm, a planet where the only real alternative is no growth at all?

    If our choices were carbon-free economic growth and fossil-fuel economic growth, I’d go carbon-free. But we just ain’t there yet, and I for one am unwilling to sentence the residents of poorer countries to another generation or two of poverty while we wait for the next paradigm shift in energy to get here.

  34. The idea that more economic activity means better environmental practices is nice, but not, you know, true.

    Except it, you know, is. A clean environment is a luxury good, joe.

    Only relatively wealthy societies can afford to take land out of production, buy the technology for clean industry, etc.

    Look at how the world really works. The countries that have real, ongoing environmental disasters are relatively poor. The countries where the environmental trend line is pointing up are all rich.

  35. Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years.

  36. Joe,

    Who gives a shit how much CO2 we produce, after all that trace element is not only beneficial but essentail to life on earth.

    FORGET CO2!

    The CO2 factor would not even be worth mention; if it were not for the fact that the greenies cannot find anything else they could (falsely) link to human success and development.
    CO2 is not a major greenhouse gas. It is a trace element and is responsible for about 0 .28% of the theoretical greenhouse effect.
    The total of all manmade CO2 therefore accounts for approximately 0.117% of the greenhouse effect. Also worth noting is that the total greenhouse theory, by most accounts, is responsible for less than half of any perceived climate change.
    We could shut down the entire economy of the U.S. and have absolutely no measurable effect on climate. Easy to read numbers and graphs here:
    http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/greenhouse_data.html.

  37. Seems the only reason we’re debating who pollutes more, rich countries or poor, is that the question of how carbon curtailment will affect poor countries came up. I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant to what we do. At the least, a carbon tax should be based on the harm being done to inhabitants of all participating nations. Each nation can voluntarily decide if it wants to participate. Perhaps a carbon tax should be based on the harm being done to all individuals period, which would be more ethical aside from the fact that it doesn’t provide incentives for reluctant nations to participate. But either way, poorer nations can decide for themselves whether to participate. Maybe they’ll choose wisely, and maybe they won’t. But we needn’t debate whether carbon curtailment will doom poor nations to poverty because that’s ultimately their own business. The only way our own carbon curtailment will affect them is indirectly by way of depressing our own economy to a certain extent, and if global warming is real and the carbon tax levied somewhat reasonably, the benefits of the curtailment should outweigh the economic depression anyway.

  38. I don’t understand why people are now accepting on blind faith that, not only is global warming real, but that we are at fault. Is there evidence that the earth is getting warmer? Yeah, sure. But 30 years ago, there was just as compelling evidence that the earth was getting cooler. The “big scare” from the media and the environmentalists in the ’60s and ’70s was about a new ice age.

    This bullspit about CO2 emissions causing global warming is just that . . . bullspit. It disturbs me to see a magazine that calls itself “Reason” abandoning all reason and buying into this crap at any level. The truth is that CO2 levels FOLLOW global temperature rise, not the other way around. As temps go up, CO2 levels go up.

    There is a documentary produced by the BBC that you can see on Google video (I can’t post a link because I’m at work and the Google video site is blocked but I believe it is called “The Great Global Warming Swindle”). This documentary is not getting the same adoration and promotion from Hollywood and the media that Gore’s abomination received, but I think it presents a much more realistic, rationalistic, and REASONABLE explanation for global warming and it’s causes. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

  39. Unfortunately, fyodor, a carbon tax will be ineffective on the global warming front unless it is applied globally. Gaia doesn’t care which country emitted that CO2 molecule, after all, and a carbon reduction scheme that doesn’t tackle developing economies will be pretty useless as far as impacting climate. See, eg, Kyoto.

    And if the developed world imposes the kind of carbon tax that will impact its CO2 emission in a meaningful way, there will be negative economic impacts that will be felt in the developing world as well.

    Having the rich countries tax the hell out of the themselves while the poor countries pollute to their heart’s content is the worst of both worlds.

  40. RC Dean,

    Gaia doesn’t care which country emitted that CO2 molecule

    Sure, but that cuts both ways. In other words, one less CO2 molecule in the atmosphere is one less CO2 molecule atmosphere and will have the proportionate effect on global warming regardless of however many other CO2 molecules are or aren’t elminated. Thus, what we do will have whatever effect it’s going to have whatever other nations do. It’s a false dichotomy to talk of a carbon tax being either effective or ineffective (assuming the former means to solve the entire problem and the latter means to not to). Now, it may seem unfair for rich nations to tax carbon while the poor nations don’t, but that’s another matter.

  41. AlfromAlberta, do not bother with Joe. Whoever dares to disagree with him, he labels him or her a lunatic.

  42. Hey, I prefer consumption taxes to most other forms, so as long as carbon taxes were accompanied by a proportionate reduction in other forms of taxes, I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed. Sure, many of those who work for a carbon tax will do so in bad faith, and attempt to merely tack it on top of the other taxes we currently pay, but it does allow those of use who wish to topple the current way by which most tax revenues are raised to call the bluff of the global warming alarmists. If global warming is the emergency they claim it is, they should not object to getting rid of the current income and payroll tax regime, lock, stock, and barrel, to replace it with a carbon tax which spurs alternative energy technology innovation.

  43. AlfromAlberta, do not bother with Joe. Whoever dares to disagree with him, he labels him or her a lunatic.

    Or, insults his mother.

  44. Dan T says,

    Please, Dan, enlighten us: What IS the problem with free markets?

    Well, for starters they tend to lead to environmental problems.

    TJIT points at Dan T and laughs at the ignorance. Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union

    You want to see an impressive amount of real environmental destruction look at the former soviet union and china, not free market countries.

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