U.S High Carbon Exceptionalism

Elisabeth Rosenthal has written a strong piece in the NY Times.   She wants to know why we aren’t in the mood to follow Joe Romm’s orders?

She applauds European progress in reducing its carbon emissions but she doesn’t present evidence concerning what is the global impact of having roughly 20% of the world’s economy reduce its emissions by 20%.  If Europe reduces its carbon emissions to zero, will the Planet notice?   She doesn’t discuss why their cost of reducing carbon is lower than ours (i.e less industry there, higher population density in their cities).  She did not explore which segments of their population are paying higher prices because of carbon pricing (or are prices not rising because of leakage as more goods are imported to Europe from China and India?).

When Matthew Kotchen and I studied the issue of what explains interest in global warming  using Google Searches, we concluded that the recession is the drag on public support.  Greens need economic booms to consolidate moderate political support.

Michael Cragg and I have studied which members of Congress voted yes for Waxman/Markey.   Wealthy, liberal, low carbon districts voted “Yes”.  That sounds a lot like most of Europe!

I wrote my climate change adaptation book, Climatopolis, because I anticipated that the U.S Congress will not take costly action to unilaterally reduce our carbon emissions.  I am on record for supporting $10 a gallon gas (read Climatopolis) but for the politically astute readers of RBC, how are we going to get there?

If the U.S doesn’t lead, how will global carbon emissions decline in a world where population and per-capita income is rising?  You need to have an optimistic model of technological breakthrough and cheap diffusion.

Given that carbon emissions will rise,  how will we adapt?  What role will capitalism play in helping us to adapt?  These are the “big questions” I tackle in Climatopolis.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

8 thoughts on “U.S High Carbon Exceptionalism”

  1. Carbon-based Smoot-Hawley, which begs for retaliation in kind? It has a nice populist-protectionist China-bashing twinge to it, so it might get past the voters.

  2. You can’t get there from here.

    What you can do is improve non-automotive transportation. Dare I say “trains?” Dare I say “mass transit?”

    If carbon emissions are a big problem, and they are, it’s worth subsidizing means of transportation that reduce emissions, while gradually increasing the price of gasoline. The problem is you can’t just jerk the gas price up to $10/gallon. You need alternatives

    Given that carbon emissions will rise, how will we adapt? What role will capitalism play in helping us to adapt?

    Who says we are going to adapt? Capitalism can only help if prices are accurate, and I don’t know how you make them accurate without substantial government action.

  3. Worrying about emissions from transport is just a chew toy for people who like to waste time and think about cool toys at a popular mechanics level of science.

    The bottom line is this: Every drop of oil and gas that can be recovered at an energy profit will be and will be burned. And given the residency time of carbon emissions, whether that carbon is emitted this year or in ten or thirty years is irrelevant, because the climate disruption we will be suffering then is from the emissions of decades past, not that day’s.

    The only thing that matters for changing our trajectory towards global crapshoot and whatever nature decides to hand us through positive feedback cycles is keeping coal in the ground and resisting the siren song of the idiots and economists (but I repeat myself) to embrace economically efficient (but environmentally catastrophic) alt fuels, tar sands, oil shales, boifuels, hydro-fracked methane, etc.

    Since the economists’ great god growth requires constantly more material inputs and energy throughputs, we are doomed. We will be dashed upon the rocks of climate chaos and lifeless, acidified oceans, and the economists will all sing that no one could have predicted it, and that this is the best of all possible worlds because we maximized growth every step of the way.

  4. “She applauds European progress in reducing its carbon emissions ”

    Actually she provides an astonishing bait-and-switch — the sort of crap that deserves to be mocked not applauded. What she does is
    (a) praise a whole lot of countries for PROMISING to do things
    (b) praise the Euro emissions trading scheme — which is widely known to be a useless boondoggle, nothing but a gift to big finance
    (c) claim that Europe is “on track” to meet its goals by 2020.

    Note that she doesn’t actually tell us that Europe has met those goals, because it hasn’t. The story is well known to those who follow the issue. Europe is doing well in this field, to the extent that it is, because of
    – collapse of the post-communist economies
    – Germany taking over and replacing East German capital stock
    – Britain working pretty hard to improve things. Yes Britain — other countries talk a lot, but look at their numbers not their speech.
    That’s it.

    Let’s go to the graph, shall we? The best one I can find (2010) is on page 11 of
    Hmm. By MY eyes what this graph tells us is
    – US emissions have fallen (to 1990 levels or perhaps SLIGHTLY below). No praise to the US here — this is purely the result of recession.
    – Euro levels are flat — perhaps a slight dip around the 2007 recession, but rather less than the US dip
    – It’s somewhat a moot point, given China.

    As I’ve said a dozen times before, population trumps everything else. But we don’t want to engage in a serious discussion about population, do we? Much better to just pretend it’s not an issue and obsess about other, second order effects — after all, a problem ignored is a problem solved.

  5. Our carbon emissions will start to go down when ocean starts to rise by feet instead of inches. It will be a little too late.

  6. Your opening sentence tells a lot. The words “in the mood to follow…orders” suggests a sarcastic, dismissive attitude toward Rosenthal’s argument. It implies that Rosenthal wishes people would simply follow an environmentalist’s orders, i.e. some kind of dictatorship. These words have the effect of characterizing those promoting action on climate change as authoritarians rather than, say, people who are interested in keeping the planet habitable for human beings and seeing that doing so will require some changes in which, yes, people will have to cooperate because we don’t have the right to damage each other’s environment.

    We aren’t just “not in the mood to follow Joe Romm’s orders”. Many Americans aren’t (and never have been) in the mood to do anything whatsoever to address climate change, especially if doing so requires anything like a tax or a regulation. I do not accept the premise that Rosenthal is upset with people not wanting to follow Romm’s orders. What I got from the piece is that she is concerned that a combination of preoccupation with the poor economy and right-wing misinformation on climate has contributed to growing doubts among Americans that climate change is happening at all.

    After these misleading opening words, although you make some good points in the rest of your post, it is hard to consider anything else you say.

  7. These are right to the point, in my view:

    Since the economists’ great god growth requires constantly more material inputs and energy throughputs, we are doomed.


    After these misleading opening words, although you make some good points in the rest of your post, it is hard to consider anything else you say.

    AFAICT we cannot manage our affairs with people in large groups. Maybe we couldn’t do it either before the Agrarian Age, but surely we weren’t such F-ups back then at the massive scale we are today. There are a few people out there with ideas of how to change course, but their voices are drowned out in the great hullabaloo of our sheer numbers and consumption.

    BTW, aside but related: here is a nice video detailing the systems necessary to support an ordinary person during an ordinary day in a large city. No way on earth that is sustainable with anything near the population numbers we have today. We are all dreaming if we think that is sustainable.

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