Marketplace Scratch Pad

Planet Money

Scott Jagow Dec 7, 2009

With apologies to the NPR blog, I just thought it an appropriate title for this topic. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the climate change summit, and one thing stands out. Like it or not, what happens in Copenhagen and beyond boils down to economics.

Here’s an excerpt from an editorial published in 56 newspapers around the world:

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: Last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

And that’s how the debate’s being reframed, according to NPR. Groups in favor of global warming legislation now talk in terms of “green jobs and energy security.” More:

A recent Harris Poll, among the latest of several over the past year, shows that barely half of the American public believes that the carbon dioxide that’s building up in the atmosphere could warm up our planet.

There are multiple reasons for this growing skepticism, including psychological reactions and politics. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale University School of Forestry puts one reason above all the rest: “First of all, it’s the economy, stupid.”

People can only worry about so many issues at one time, he says. So it’s no surprise they worry about issues that hit closest to home.

“And the economy is still by far the No. 1 concern of Americans, which just pushes all other issues off the table.”

And that’s always been the case says The Guardian’s Michael Tomasky. A tough economy is a very difficult time to expect radical change:

The more optimistic flip side of this argument is that once the economy is better, there will be greater public toleration for addressing other problems, which I believe to be the case.

Which is why I thought: fix the economy first; prove that government can fix a problem competently; and then get on to these other things.

Lord knows how long that’ll take, though, or whether the government would prove just the opposite. Many scientists say we can’t afford to wait.

Some thoughts from economist Paul Krugman:

The truth is that conservatives who predict economic doom if we try to fight climate change are betraying their own principles. They claim to believe that capitalism is infinitely adaptable, that the magic of the marketplace can deal with any problem. But for some reason they insist that cap and trade — a system specifically designed to bring the power of market incentives to bear on environmental problems — can’t work.

Well, they’re wrong — again. For we’ve been here before.

The acid rain controversy of the 1980s was in many respects a dress rehearsal for today’s fight over climate change. Then as now, right-wing ideologues denied the science. Then as now, industry groups claimed that any attempt to limit emissions would inflict grievous economic harm.

But in 1990 the United States went ahead anyway with a cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide. And guess what. It worked, delivering a sharp reduction in pollution at lower-than-predicted cost.

Finally, here’s a skeptic’s guide to Copenhagen from the Daily Beast in fine Devil’s Dictionary style. An excerpt:

M is for Man, who, to quote Ambrose Bierce, is “an animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.” And then there’s methane, a greenhouse gas parped into the air 24/7 by bovine polluters across the globe; the Medieval Climate Optimum, a warm period from about the 10th to the 14th century which warmists (i) ignore and/or (iii) cannot explain; ManBearPig, South Park’s derisive nickname for global warming; and money.

See, it always comes back to that.

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