Tuesday, July 27. 2010
Paul Krugman: Who Cooked the Planet? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threw in the towel on trying to pass any climate-change legislation this year, so Krugman tries to pin down responsibility for inaction:
He then lashes in to "climate cowards" like Sen. John McCain. Fair enough. But as a card-carrying Keynesian, shouldn't Krugman suspect that ideology ("bad ideas") is more to blame than mere interest? For a better explanation, turn to: Ross Douthat: The Right and the Climate:
The fundamental political issue of our times is whether government should act as a counterbalance against the various problems kicked up by capitalism, or whether government should be limited to support of the capitalist order. The latter position, which had been gaining ground from the 1970s up to the current Great Recession, seeks to do three things: 1) to concentrate wealth in private hands; 2) to make the regulation of business private and discretionary, not subject to public policy; 3) to make government as unattractive as possible to anyone without significant money, and thereby keep them from looking to government for any kind of support. The latter isn't easy: we live in a putative democracy, where government is supposed to belong to and serve the people, and the people actually served by deregulation and wealth concentration are inevitably a tiny minority. That they have any chance of ruling at all is due to their skill at spinning a story line -- an ideology -- that seems to back their case.
They're good at spinning that story -- indeed, they should be, given that they have most of the money and practically all of the media -- but sometimes they run into trouble, like when the economy crashes, and then their spiel loses credibility. That happened big time in 1929-32 when many people concluded that capitalism had broken beyond repair. That led to desperate efforts at reform, all of which involved deliberate massive government intervention: communism (which was too anti-capitalist), fascism (which was too anti-worker), and Keynesian liberalism, which sought to save capitalism by rebalancing productive forces, and by using public spending to make up for shortfalls in demand. And it happened on a smaller scale in 2008 -- the mitigating factor is that we've kept relatively high levels of government spending all these years even though the ideology disparages it.
So conservatives reject doing anything about global warming because only government can do anything about -- worst still, only most world governments acting in concert -- and they've been trained to see any government effort at solving any problem as an existential attack on the privileges of the rich (err, on conservative principles, God and country, family values, all that we hold near and dear). That story about alarmists in the 1970s being proven wrong is just window dressing. Still, that doesn't mean they're right now, or were even right in the 1970s.
Ehrlich is certainly right that persistent population growth will eventually exceed the feeding capacity of the earth. What caught him unawares was the increase in productive efficiency caused mostly by putting more oil into agriculture. That such an increase happened doesn't mean that further increases will continue to happen, especially if energy inputs get much more expensive. (The other main hope is genetic manipulation, which is harder to predict -- especially side-effects.) The 1970s also saw an oil crunch, in large part politically concocted but also tied to peak oil being passed in the US. This led to a glut in the 1980s partly driven by politics -- the UK tried to drain its North Sea fields in record time -- and in any case unlikely to be reproduced.
In retrospect, Ehrlich's biggest mistake may have been to think that limiting population would conserve resources. The best counterexample is China, where drastic restrictions led to an extraordinary growth spurt and corresponding demand for natural resources (energy and materials, of course, but even food demand increases especially if it involves meat). The same correlation applies throughout the developing world, where economic growth is closely tied to limiting population growth -- which for one thing means that the right's pronatal obsession works to keep the developing world from developing.
Still, the issue is something else: conservatives maintain that concerted government action to mitigate climate change would cause more harm than benefit, at least compared to what unregulated markets may (or may not) accomplish. It's hard to see why that might be the case, unless you believe that even a successful governmental intervention would be a bad thing for your political standing. It's certainly easy to see how government action could go wrong, especially given our system of political influence peddling. On the other hand, if you take the threat seriously, it's even harder to see how an unregulated private sector would solve it except through a painful process of crash and retrenchment -- a cycle that unregulated markets never tire of repeating.
I don't have much to say about the threats posed by global warming. It should by now be obvious that we tend to take some threats more seriously than warranted and others less. Climate change splits both ways, probably because it's been reduced to a right-left litmus test, but also because climate seems so basic it must matter greatly while at the same time it is so changeable day-to-day that the projected ranges don't stray much from our experience. (I've followed many paleontological debates about climate change vs. other causes for extinction events, and have never found climate change to be convincing as an explanation, so I tend to be skeptical about disaster models. On the other hand, we are dreadful at evaluating rare but extremely dire prospects, which certainly are possible here.)
Douthat does say one more thing of special interest here, about "global-warming heretics" like Bjorn Lomborg and Freeman Dyson:
In one sense I don't see the assumption. A warmer world will be one where a lot of resources will be dislocated, which will favor some people while disfavoring others, but at least in the short run such shifts are most likely to destroy more wealth quicker than they will allow new wealth to be created. Maybe in the long term that balances out, but I don't see how you can count on that. Moreover, the change will disproportionately take its toll on those who own wealth now, simply because they have the most to lose. It is, therefore, easy to see why Europe and the US should be more worried about global warming than the developing world -- even aside from fairness issues, or the suspicion that we are trying to lock in a permanent advantage. For the developing world -- especially the part that really is growing its economy -- the tables are reversed. For countries like China, India, and Brazil there is virtually no reason to sacrifice growth now for climate stability later. (Research shows that more money does make you happier, but only to a point: once you've broken out of poverty it makes less and less difference.) Douthat concludes:
Indeed, if you're a developing country that is growing fast enough that it's not just the rich who are getting richer, that sounds like good advice. On the other hand, that doesn't sound like America, where government inaction and irresponsibility over the last 30 years has eroded everyone's wealth except for the upper crust's. For most people in America the time to act is now -- if not on climate change, at least on the more basic political dispute.
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