To the extent that the name of Ernst Haeckel is familiar to most readers at all, he’s known for the most famous of his bons mots: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The development of the individual repeats the development of the species. It’s not really true, of course. When growing in the womb human beings don’t really pass through all the stages of evolution from multicelled organism to fish to amphibian to reptile and so on. It’s really a lot more complicated (and interesting) than that. It does fall trippingly off the tongue and sound clever though, doesn’t it?
The first piece of federal legislation ostensibly intended to reduce carbon production in the United States is now making its way through the Congress. I’m not as sanguine about it as Thomas Friedman:
Rejecting this bill would have been read in the world as America voting against the reality and urgency of climate change and would have undermined clean energy initiatives everywhere.
More important, my gut tells me that if the U.S. government puts a price on carbon, even a weak one, it will usher in a new mind-set among consumers, investors, farmers, innovators and entrepreneurs that in time will make a big difference — much like the first warnings that cigarettes could cause cancer. The morning after that warning no one ever looked at smoking the same again.
Ditto if this bill passes. Henceforth, every investment decision made in America — about how homes are built, products manufactured or electricity generated — will look for the least-cost low-carbon option. And weaving carbon emissions into every business decision will drive innovation and deployment of clean technologies to a whole new level and make energy efficiency much more affordable. That ain’t beanbag.
My concern is that, rather than institutionalizing least-cost low-carbon options, the law will serve to institutionalize even further the role of political pull in the success of businesses and spawn a million fraudulent schemes for carbon reduction far, far away, beyond the reach of verification. That will do nothing for climate change, manmade or otherwise, but it will be an enormous drag on other innovation in the economy.
The awful truth is that no measure that we take here will have any effect whatever unless China and India follow suit. China already spews more carbon into the air than we do, its present rate of increase exceeds anything we can be expected to offset in reductions, and that would be true even if we produced no carbon emissions at all here.
But whenever you bring out this point somebody is bound to restate Haeckel’s dictum to cover economic development: the economic development of each nation must mimic the patterns followed by developed nations of today and, consequently, it would be unfair to ask China, for example, to reduce its carbon emissions. The Chinese make this argument themselves.
You’d think that so egregiously phony an argument wouldn’t require refutation but apparently it does. Let’s take the argument to its logical (if that’s the right word for it) conclusion. If China must be allowed to follow the same paths as Britain, the United States, France, and Germany did at this stage of their economic development, shouldn’t the use of cell phones, the Internet, modern pharmaceuticals, and macadam for their roads be denied them? After all, none of the developed nations had the use of any of those things when they were at the stage that China is now.
But that’s not what proponents of the argument mean. They really mean that it’s fair for China to pick and choose the technologies that suit them, selecting those they like and eschewing those they find inconvenient, like non-polluting approaches to energy production or transportation and that’s patently absurd.
We are apparently embarked on the path that Europe has followed, following what I believe to be the illusory path of bureaucratic management as a means of reducing carbon emissions. While we do so we’d be making an enormous error if we didn’t encourage the Chinese and Indians to do the same, recalling that if they don’t all of our efforts at mitigating the effects of the carbon we’ve produced will be in vain.
Don’t make the error of thinking the Chinese can be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. They can’t. But they can be incentivized to do what we’d like them to and even single-celled organisms respond to incentives and we’d be fools not to try.