Robert Frank offers a calculation about why we ought to act now on global warming, and some speculations about why we’re not doing so.
The calculation is that for a GHG tax equivalent to about $2.60 a gallon of gasoline, we could eliminate something like a 10% risk of a 7° C. temperature increase by 2100, a truly catastrophic outcome. The speculation is that climate change doesn’t trigger strong moral emotions. Frank quotes Daniel Gilbert: “If climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.”
I think that captures an important piece of the puzzle. But it doesn’t fully explain the irrationality of regarding uncertainty an argument against action rather than for it. Perhaps the problem is that in the usual case action is risky relative to inaction. In this case, it’s sitting on our hands while lawyers, economists, pundits, and lobbyists pretend to be climate experts that’s the wild-ass gamble, while a GHG tax or the equivalent in the form of cap-and-trade, plus some R&D subsidies for non-GHG-releasing energy sources, represents a conservative (in the portfolio-analysis sense of that term) risk-management strategy.
One of the worst habits of poor-country governments is subsidizing food and fuel for city-dwellers. Such policies are demonstrably inefficient (compared to giving money) and one of the central tenets of the (discredited but not abandoned) neo-liberal Washington Consensus was “Getting Prices Right” (without, of course, actually replacing commodity subsidies with income transfers). “Conservatives” approved; the fact that such policy changes often couldn’t be imposed democratically never bothered them much.
But our current climate-change policy – allowing people to continue to release greenhouse gases to an unlimited extent without any charge – constitutes a gross mispricing of a scarce resource. We can argue about what the charge should be, and how quickly or slowly it should be phased in. But unless the voices tell you that the warming problem is entirely imaginary, you have to know that zero is the wrong price. (Even if you believe in Imhofe’s conspiracy theory about climate scientists massively fudging the data, that still wouldn’t suggest that the risk is zero.)
And as long as the American right wing would prefer risking the planet to cooperating with a liberal President, there’s not much we can do about it. Not much, that is, other than remembering that electing Democrats this fall and in 2012 is literally a matter of life and death, which allows us to put the tensions between “progressives” and the Obama Administration in perspective. The difference between not wanting to do “enough” about climate change and not wanting to do anything about it but “Drill, baby, drill!” is all the difference in the world.