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October 23, 2007

global warming: three responses

(In Cambridge, Mass.) I presume that human beings are causing the world to warm by burning carbon fuels. I know this the same way I know that evolution occurred, that the earth goes around the sun, and that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare -- not from direct personal experimentation or a deep immersion in the scholarly literature, but basically because I trust certain institutions, such as major newspapers and universities.

Still, this premise permits at least three responses:

1. The damage from global warming will be very serious, but it could still be tangibly mitigated if we cut carbon emissions. Individuals do not have to pay when they damage the planet by burning carbon. Therefore, they have an incentive to burn carbon as long as the benefit exceeds the price of the coal or oil that they consume. The only way to reduce emissions substantially is to tax carbon on a global scale. (Cap-and-trade systems, by the way, are simply efficient taxes.)

2. Although the previous point is partly true, it's also true that people want to cut the cost of the fuel they burn. If we invested heavily in technology that increased fuel efficiency, people would happily buy and use that technology. Subsidies for efficiency can at least partly replace taxes.

3. The cost of reducing carbon emissions will be enormous, and the payoff will be unsatisfactory. The world will be worse off as it grows warmer, yet the marginal benefits of money we invest in reducing emissions are too small to matter. It is more efficient to mitigate the damage by, for example, allowing Chinese factories to burn as much coal as they like but protecting Bangladesh from floods.

I lean toward response #1 for reasons of temperament and ideology. (I am cautious and tolerant of state action). But it would be wrong to presume that response #1 is the only morally acceptable one--it all depends on the facts.

October 23, 2007 10:45 PM | category: none


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