Many people in positions of power — and not just global warming skeptics — believe the following two things:

  1. Economic growth is an engine driven by fossil fuels. Remove all restrictions on fossil fuel use, growth surges. Restrict fossil fuel use, growth slows.
  2. "Doing something about global warming" means restricting or capping carbon dioxide emissions, which means restricting fossil fuel use.

The inevitable conclusion is that the only way to fight global warming is to slow down and possibly cripple the economy. Thus you get calls for "certainty" about exactly how much damage global warming will do, so it can be weighed against the damage of mitigating global warming.

This picture of the situation is grossly distorted. Here’s why, in a nutshell:

  1. Economic growth is not tied to fossil-fuel use. Many of the most promising industries of the 21st century are focused on clean energy and energy efficiency.
  2. Fossil-fuel use imposes a variety of costs on the economy, from the loss of ecosystem services to increased healthcare expenditures.
  3. Economies grow fastest when all economic actors face off on a level playing field, without favors or penalties from government. As it is, fossil-fuel and related industries receive a panoply of subsidies and tax breaks from government; worse, their externalities are paid for by the public. A more honest market would already have shifted growth away from dirty energy.
  4. An enormous range of policies can reduce GHG emissions without directly capping or restricting them. Many of these are win-win moves, worth doing for other reasons (e.g., public health or energy independence). They include increased public transportation, zoning codes that encourage dense, mixed-use development, tighter energy-efficiency standards, development of less carbon-intensive materials (plastics, concrete, wood substitutes), and many more.

And this is to say nothing of the developing world, where much of the contribution to global warming — razing of rainforests, wood and charcoal fires for heating — is the result of poor, short-sighted development, at great human and economic cost. "Sustainable development" is sustainable, but it’s also development. Low-tech products like simple solar cookers and water purifiers, strengthened rule of law and reduced corruption, empowerment of women … all these would both stimulate economic development and help mitigate global warming.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In short, policymakers have a range of choices and strategies available to fight global warming that are commensurate with, and often conducive to, robust, sustainable economic growth.