There’s a smart op-ed in today’s WaPo by University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein (via Dessler).

The basic point is simple: The two countries that are contributing most to global warming (the U.S. and China) will be among the least harmed by it, according to most projections, and thus have the least incentive to do something about it.

(In case you’re wondering, India and Africa are going to take the brunt of it, via damage to agriculture and especially vulnerability to disease.)

The dynamic more or less insures inaction, unless one of three things happens.

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First, we could decide that even though we will be better off relative to other countries, the absolute losses will be too much to risk. Sunstein alludes to that here:

Of course, any such projections involve a lot of guesswork, and reasonable people can differ. If global warming turns out to be either abrupt or greater than anticipated, it might well inflict catastrophic losses, leading to extremely serious problems for the United States and China alike. And even under current projections, the risks faced by the world’s leading emitters can hardly be dismissed as trivial. National economies are interdependent, and if the world as a whole suffers from climate change, the United States and China will pay a large price.

My gut tells me that we’ve spent too much time concentrating on the scientific and technical dangers in isolation, without fully grasping the political and economic dangers. What would happen to the world economy if India and Africa completely collapsed in a humanitarian nightmare that produced millions of refugees and widespread resource wars? Is that really something the U.S. and China shouldn’t bother trying to avoid?

Second, we could be struck with a sudden world-historical wave of moral sentiment and decide that since we created this mess while exploiting the world’s finite resources, we have an obligation to clean it up. Ha ha.

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Third, we could decide — or be convinced — that measures to limit or reduce GHG emissions will be less expensive than projected, or even a net economic positive. This argument has been made by many folks, most recently Gregg Easterbrook in Atlantic Monthly.

IMO, the third possibility is the only real hope, and the place we should be placing most of our energies. Tackling things like this is never as hard as the hysterical pro-business lobby says they’re going to be; generally, it’s not less money being made, it’s just different people making money. Nothing wrong with that.