Robert Samuelson takes note of the gap between rhetoric and the cold, hard, practical facts:
On the baby boom, Obama said: “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
On climate change: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Against this rousing rhetoric stand daunting realities.
The problem with the first issue is one well-known to most people who’ve taken an economics course: butter or guns? It is not merely that federal spending must be allocated. It is that labor, materials, and ingenuity are all finite commodities. Choices must necessarily be made.
The problem with the second is that we can’t solve the problem of climate change by any measures we take here up to and including huddling naked in fireless caves, eating our meat (or, presumably, grass) raw. The growing carbon production outside the United States ensures that:
On climate change, the difficulty is greater. Environmentalists argue that emissions from fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) need to be cut 50 percent to 80 percent by mid-century to avoid a ruinous warming. The problem is that there’s simply no plausible way to get from here to there without, in effect, shutting down the world economy.
Consider a recent study by the International Energy Agency in Paris. Under current policies, it forecasts that world energy demand will rise 47 percent between 2010 and 2035 and the increase in emissions of carbon dioxide — the largest greenhouse gas — will be almost the same. Even when the forecast assumes greater energy efficiencies and a larger shift to wind, solar and other non-fossil fuel sources, energy demand grows 35 percent by 2035 and CO2 emissions 23 percent.
Virtually all the increases occur in China, India and other developing countries. By 2035, estimates the IEA, the number of passenger vehicles in the world will double to 1.7 billion. Electricity demand will surge, as industry expands, more people move into the middle class and many now without electricity (1.3 billion) receive it. American CO2 emissions are projected to stay roughly level by 2035, but even if they fell sharply, the declines wouldn’t offset increases elsewhere in the world.
Bjørn Lomborg makes a similar point this morning:
In the long run, the world needs to cut carbon dioxide because it causes global warming. But if the main effort to cut emissions is through subsidies for chic renewables like wind and solar power, virtually no good will be achieved—at very high cost. The cost of climate policies just for the European Union—intended to reduce emissions by 2020 to 20% below 1990 levels—are estimated at about $250 billion annually. And the benefits, when estimated using a standard climate model, will reduce temperature only by an immeasurable one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
Even in 2035, with the most optimistic scenario, the International Energy Agency estimates that just 2.4% of the world’s energy will come from wind and only 1% from solar. As is the case today, almost 80% will still come from fossil fuels. As long as green energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, growing consumer markets like those in China and India will continue to use them, despite what well-meaning but broke Westerners try to do.
I think that Dr. Lomborg’s proposal, increased investment in research on “green energy” as opposed to production, is practically refuted by his own observation. If we absolutely must throw money at something it should be geoengineering—remediation rather than increased efficiency. At least it’s something effective we could do without international cooperation.
Neither electoral success nor even legislative success are enough. Even the best of intentions won’t cause make believe solutions to work.