January 20, 2009

Are We Doomed?

Reading this piece makes me nervous about the prospects of comprehensive climate change legislation. Are all the green groups and Democrats as prepared to fight for its passage as the oil and coal companies and the Republicans are to quash it?

Let me put it this way: Bill Clinton and the Democrats got burned when they tried to enact universal health care in 1993-1994, in part because they underestimated how much the opposition would resist them (not to mention that they committed a lot of unforced errors). Things are much different now, however: we have a coalition spearheading the push for health care reform that has been relentless in defining the contours of the coming debate; and a newly ascendant Democratic Party that is not about, even amid a recession, to let slip away another opportunity to realize something liberals have been dreaming about since the days of FDR. In other words, Democrats are ready for a fight about health care, and aren't going to let up until they have achieved something of significance.

Can anyone say honestly that this is the case with respect to climate change? Where, for example, is the environmental equivalent of Health Care for America Now? Of course, compared to climate change, getting together support for universal health care is a veritable cakewalk. At least ensuring affordable health care for all Americans doesn't involve a multi-decade effort to significantly alter the nature of how we produce energy and manage land use, in which international cooperation will be an absolute necessity, and where the benefits of action are diffuse and the costs are direct, while the costs of inaction will be disproportionately borne by those who had nothing to do with causing the problem in the first place.

This seems to be why, for some pundits, the election of Barack Obama seems to be inducing, not hope for renewed effort on climate change, but rather pessimism that anything can be done of the scale needed to avoid catastrophic warming in the necessary time frame. Yes, it's great that Obama supports modernizing the electric grid and boosting renewable energy production and mass transit; but on the hard problems -- 1) adopting a strong loophole-free carbon pricing scheme and 2) getting developing countries to commit to reducing emissions -- I am less certain that he can get the job done. Partly this is because of the lackluster success that Europe has had on these same issues (the ascension of climate change denier Václav Klaus to the EU presidency doesn't help either), but also because the basic structural hurdles to vigorous action haven't changed; these include the many veto points in the American system of government, the entrenched nature of the fossil fuel lobbies, and the broken state of international negotiations on climate change. And then there's the problem of China...

Of course, I'm not at all ready to say that we're doomed -- yet. I certainly hope (!) that President Obama and the new Congress demonstrate that they are serious about reducing carbon emissions, and can then work with the EU to persuade the leading Third World economies (China, India, et al) to join in the effort. At the same time, however, we need to start hedging our bets. There are three legs in the stool of climate change policy: mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering. (I'm separating the latter out from mitigation so as to distinguish it from more conventional mitigation measures, like energy efficiency.) So far we've been focused, rightly, on mitigation, in part because talk of adapting to climate change comes off as an admission of defeat. At this point, however, this planet is going to warm by some significant amount this century, and having a coordinated plan for how to deal with it is simple prudence. Similarly, many geoengineering ideas sound rather daft; but others, like a global campaign to paint roofs white, would probably be a good thing to do in conjunction with other policies.

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