Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Michael Gerson on Climate Change

Michael Gerson has some interesting and useful comments on the solution to climate change in the Washington Post:

In 1975, Los Angeles exceeded the ozone standard 192 days out of the year -- meaning the choking smog was so bad that children, the elderly and the infirm were better off avoiding the risky practice of outdoor breathing. In 2005, the ozone standard was exceeded on just 27 days. Los Angeles has had 30 years of consistent improvement in reducing smog.

As conservatives would expect, these gains were largely the result of technology -- the catalytic converter in automobiles and reformulated gasoline -- and not by pedaling to work or undoing the Industrial Revolution. Smog was reduced mainly by innovation, not austerity.

But liberals are correct about something else: This technological progress would not have taken place as a result of the free market alone. Easterbrook argues that as long as producing pollution is a free good -- without cost to the polluter -- there is little economic incentive to produce new methods to restrict it. Federal and state regulations on auto emissions and air quality created an environment in which the invention of new technologies was economically necessary.

There are lessons here in the controversy over global warming. The debate is less and less about the existence of the problem itself. A consensus has hardened and broadened that global temperatures are increasing, that humans have contributed to the rise and that this is eventually a bad thing for the planet -- views held by the environmental movement and publicly affirmed by the current president. The differences come on whether these environmental changes are likely to be gradual and manageable or swift and apocalyptic. Here, the scientific computer simulations are complex and speculative, and their conclusions are sometimes wildly overplayed.

Hysteria on the environment is a liberal temptation. Prudence, however, remains a conservative virtue, and it requires the issue of warming to be addressed.

But is it addressable? Would any politically feasible policy changes by Congress and the president make a dent in this trend? There is good reason for skepticism. American emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are only part of a global problem. China and India are quickly building new coal-fired power plants to sustain massive economic growth. According to one estimate, China surpassed the United States in the production of greenhouse gases last year. We are only at the beginning of globalization -- and right now, that process is inseparable from the burning of fossil fuels. American restrictions on greenhouse gases, in isolation, would not be decisive.

This is not, however, an excuse for inaction. There is another, more compelling reason to consider a cap on the production of carbon dioxide. As in the case of fighting Los Angeles smog, this type of government regulation would create economic incentives for the development of new technologies -- incentives that do not exist in the free market. Capturing and storing carbon dioxide from power plants, by all accounts, is a difficult technical challenge. But the problem is much more likely to be solved if someone has a direct economic interest in solving it.

Read it all here.

Given the experience in Europe, I remain deeply sceptical about cap and change proposals. I think that a carbon tax (coupled with a rebate to make the system revenue neutral) is a far more effective solution. Still, a cap proposal appear to be the only politically viable option right now, and some action is better than none. And, more importantly, i am happy that Gerson and I are arguing over the solution instead of the existence of the problem.

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