Conservatives just as wrong on climate economics as they are on climate science
Just a quick note to follow up on my two posts about conservative pundits and their flailing attempts to respond to the charge that Republicans are anti-science. The fact that conservatives are so proudly flat-earth on climate science has preoccupied the press and pundits to the point that it’s obscured another conservative pathology, one that is, if anything, more consequential: their discredited take on the economics of climate policy.
Keep in mind that the only major climate policy advanced by the left that’s even reached the level of national debate is cap-and-trade, a market-based policy first instituted under the first President Bush. That’s what Rich Lowry refers to as “sweeping carbon controls that fail any cost-benefit analysis,” what Kevin D. Williamson refers to as the policies of the “environmentalist-anti-capitalist green coalition,” and what David Harsanyi, attempting to win the purple rhetoric award, calls a “massive Luddite undertaking that inhibits technological growth by turning back the clock, undoing footprints, forcing technology that doesn’t exist, banning products that do, and badgering consumers who have not adhered to the plan through all kinds of punishment.”
Anyone who followed the climate bill fiasco will find this numbingly familiar. There was seemingly no ceiling to the claims conservatives could make about the economic impact of climate policy. $500 billion lost a year! No, a gazillion! Three million jobs lost! No, 20 million! ALL the jobs!
And it’s on this, not on the basic scientific consensus, where the mainstream media really failed. (Read Eric Pooley’s fantastic long paper on this: “The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change” [PDF].) They allowed conservatives to advance one ludicrous claim after another, without even the “balance” they provided on the science. Analyses from independent researchers and think tanks were set up against agit-prop from industry groups with no attempt at all to distinguish the relative validity. (They’re doing the exact same thing on EPA regulations now.) More than doubt about science, it’s this conviction that emission reductions mean economic pain that has put the American people off action.
But it’s bullsh*t! Very little in economics is as robust as the results in the physical sciences, so it would be misleading to compare the consensus on climate economics to the one on climate science, but for economics, it’s fairly robust. A few years ago, economist Nat Keohane rounded up five analyses of cap-and-trade from respected institutions: the EIA, the Research Triangle Institute, Harvard, MIT, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. The studies varied quite a bit — in their projection of business-as-usual growth, for instance — but they converged on roughly similar estimations of impact.
A business-as-usual approach, continuing with today’s policies, puts the U.S. economy on a path to reach $26 trillion in January 2030. With a cap on the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, the economy will reach the same level two to seven months later.
This modest impact, it should be noted, is far smaller than the expected negative impacts of climate change itself. And it could be mitigated with aggressive efficiency and smart investments in innovation.
The jobs impacts of climate policy are similarly modest. If, like Trevor Houser, you take into account the slack demand brought about by the current recession (i.e., drop the ludicrous assumption of full employment), then carbon policy can even be expected to create a modest number of jobs.
As it happens, I think mainstream economic analysis overestimates costs and underestimates benefits, for reasons I’ve written about at length. But if I were quoted saying so in the mainstream press, I would expect the reporter to note that my view differed from the broad consensus of practicing economists.
And yet conservatives and industry trade groups regularly assert utterly ludicrous things about the economic effects of climate policy and are rarely called on it. In fact, economic hysteria is mainstream in the Republican Party. In its own way, it’s a species of willed ignorance just as pathological as the denial of science, but for some reason it doesn’t come in for as much criticism. It should.