Climate stabilization is net cheap, so humanity should buy a lot of it. But it’s expensive gross: the costs are high. (No, Virginia, we will not all get richer than we are now conserving energy and making windmills. If low carbon methods were cheaper, we would be using them. We will just be a lot less poor and desperate than we are headed to be if we stay on our current course. ) It also gores some specific rich, powerful oxen (the fossil energy industry, for example), and it isn’t fair: it’s outrageous that the developing world can’t have a couple of nice fossil-fueled centuries, just because the west stole all the atmosphere’s CO2 capacity to make Europe and North America rich.
It’s worse than that, so much worse that the chances the world will achieve it or even come close seem to me overall small. First, climate stabilization is a prisoners’ dilemma. For any jurisdiction smaller than China, the benefits of buying it are enormously diluted because the atmosphere is well mixed and we all experience the climate. For California citizens, for example, to invest $100 to achieve $1000 worth of climate benefits looks like a good deal, until you realize that Californians will only get about $5 of those benefits; even the whole US, about $50. So a hard-headed benefit cost calculation for any single nation or government faces a tremendous hit on the benefit side: the Australians James writes about are good people doing the right thing to their cost. The hard truth is that if Californians think the rest of the world will step up and deal with climate, our best bet is to do nothing and enjoy our free-rider’s share, and if we think the rest of the world will not, our best bet is to do nothing and not be chumps; at least we’ll save the stabilization costs to spend on adaptation.
It’s also a NIMTO (“not in my term of office”), and a NIML (“not in my lifetime”) for most people of voting age. Climate change is slow, greatly delayed from the actions that cause it, and the really big costs are decades away. No candidate will have climate benefits to show before the next election, or the end of his term, from a vote that might make a difference. At least in the US, we used to be willing to spend money for the benefit of future generations, but we now have (for example) national candidates who have learned, from polling and focus group research, that there are votes to be had asking seniors to throw their children and grandchildren under the retirement bus. We have (for example) adult voting cohorts happily defunding the education of their kids. The Sonny Corleones have won the argument: enlistees in WWII weren’t the greatest generation; they were “…chumps, because they risk their lives for strangers.”
I worried when we elected a senator from a coal state and from a corn state as president; Obama was the better choice overall, and the better even on environment specifically, and of course he wouldn’t be able to do anything if he lost the election touting a carbon t_x, I know. But that’s where we are: anything at all about climate in the debates from either side?
Finally, it’s big and awesome and different from anything in our lived experience. I won’t experience much of it, but I don’t even know how to think about 160m Bangla Deshis on the hoof looking for a place to live in a very crowded neighborhood. What will a worldwide famine, not a localized one, look like when Argentina, Brazil, the US, and Russia all have a bad crop year together? We will have a military able to defeat everyone in the world at once, but exactly how will that be useful when the southern half of Florida goes under water?
The Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree was just obeying sound market signals of value, doing his part to optimize social welfare. Because he was not a chump or a sucker, and never did any more than he had to for other people, he was the winner, because he was the last guy with a palm tree still standing. If his descendants had survived, no doubt they would celebrate his Randian merit and put his portrait over the fireplace.