The Washington Post deserves enormous credit for the editorial on climate change it ran this weekend. There is usually no more reliable barometer of elite conventional opinion than the Post, but in U.S. politics, CW has been running away from climate for the last few years. In this case, the Post is standing up for a plain truth that is almost never spoken in U.S. media: that climate change is a crisis, already upon us, and every bit of delay in responding raises the eventual (and inevitable) costs of doing so. Others will rehearse the Post‘s past journalistic sins on climate — they are many. I choose to hope this marks a new seriousness.
That said, I would quibble with a detail or two. (You are surprised.)
The Post cites a report this year from OECD that projects “global energy use will increase by 80 percent by mid-century, with 85 percent of the energy mix coming from fossil fuels.” Here’s how the Post frames the consequences:
That would likely raise global temperatures well past the target of 2 degrees Celsius, beyond which scientists say climate change could be extremely dangerous. It would also produce lethal amounts of air pollution, manifested in more heart attacks, asthma and other maladies.
For too long, discussion of climate change has dwelled on the 2 degrees target. It has become somewhat anesthetizing. The fact is, our current trajectory will almost certainly push us past 2 degrees. Climate scientists know this, though they rarely talk about it in public since they’ve been chided for years not to scare people. But 2 degrees is probably out of reach. Our current trajectory is leading us toward 6 degrees or even higher.
A lot of the uncertainty about impacts at 2 degrees becomes much less uncertain at 6 degrees. Heart attacks and asthma are the least of it. At that temperature we will see widespread drought and rising sea levels that will leave hundreds of millions without homes. Worse, we could push the climate to the point that change becomes self-reinforcing and utterly out of our control.
Our current path leads to catastrophe. That is the most important truth about climate.
Secondly, so familiar it almost seems tedious pointing it out, there’s the Post‘s carbon-pricing fetish, which very much is part of elite CW. Witness:
Carbon taxes or simple cap-and-trade systems encourage businesses and consumers to pollute less and to find alternatives, without the spectacle of government trying to pick which clean-energy technologies should win out. Ending fossil fuel subsidies would also save treasuries money and discourage pollution.
There will still be transition costs associated with these policies, which the OECD reckoned will increase over the course of this century. But the OECD is only the latest reputable, nonpartisan organization to explain that pricing pollution is more efficient than governmental micromanagement — the current policy, explicit or implied, of both political parties — and, given the wide range of risks and high uncertainty, much more attractive than doing nothing.
Putting a price on carbon is great. Insofar as there is a seed of a bipartisan consensus growing on that subject, may it be watered by the blessings of God and Adam Smith alike.
And yes, the current policy of both parties, in fact if not in rhetoric, is a series of favors buried in the submerged state of the tax code. (Though please, let’s not pretend both parties are equally guilty of bad energy policy.)
However, it does not follow from these facts that carbon pricing is the only credible climate policy. A price on carbon provides a market pull, but that pull is not magic. It pulls inconsistently, weakly at first, and takes a great deal of time to reach some areas (e.g., transportation) where change is urgently needed. We don’t just need the pull at the end of the line, we need improvements all along the line. We need more R&D at the beginning. We need programs that shepherd good ideas across the “valley of death” into market viability. We need incentives for mass deployment of existing technology. We need incentives for radical efficiency.
It is possible to do all these things in better and worse ways. There is a great deal of political momentum and pressure behind doing them in piss-poor ways. The fight to improve such policies is endless, contentious, and thankless. But the dream of simply wiping the table and replacing everything with a clean, simple price on carbon is just that: a technocrat’s dream. Energy markets are not that simple. The history and political economy of energy policy are not that simple. Rather than dreaming, outlets like the Post should get familiar with the compromised, messy details, and with the smarter policy alternatives on the table.
Still, to end where I began: big ups to the Post for defying prevailing fashions. I hope the clear-eyed sobriety evident in the editorial goes on to infuse coverage across the entire paper.