How do you solve a problem like Maria China?
It occurs to me that my response to Shellenberger & Nordhaus failed to address what they call the "elephant in the environmental room": China. They say that environmentalists ignore the subject and corporatists obsess over it for the same reason — it illustrates the futility of domestic carbon regulations (in isolation). China, they say, is not going to impose regulatory restrictions that will slow its economic growth. It will not shift from coal to clean energy until the latter cost less than the former, with or without a price on carbon. Ergo, the only thing we can do to help China shift to sustainable development is drive down the cost of clean energy via massive public investment.
I feel like I should preface every post about China with this disclaimer: What’s going on in China is utterly without historical precedent. Nobody in the West understands it. I doubt many people in China understand it. People who make predictions about China’s future are setting themselves up for failure.
But that’s never stopped me before, so here are a few thoughts that may complicate S&N’s rather tidy story.
1. Regulation in China. You often hear people in the West, including S&N, characterize China as a kind of economic Terminator, focused monomaniacally on economic growth to the exclusion of all else. That’s undoubtedly true to some extent, but it’s only part of the story.
For one thing, environmental degradation — the old-fashioned kind, not the newfangled, invisible atmospheric kind — is on the verge of crippling China. The air in its cities is all but unbreathable; it’s rivers and lakes are toxic; deserts are expanding. Pollution is hampering economic growth and causing widespread political unrest. This is the inevitable consequence of developing along the brute-force, fossil-based, poorly planned path of the West, in a fraction of the time and without commensurate growth in political freedom. So even if we think of China as purely self-interested, and of self-interest as purely economic, the country has ample reason to go green.
Is China purely self-interested? I wonder. Just as America’s imperial adventures aren’t as altruistic as some of our fellow citizens would like to think, I suspect that China’s leadership is not as immune to moral suasion as our stereotype would have it. Remember, to imagine that China will engage in heedless fossil-based growth now and forever, you have to assume not just that the country is purely self-interested, but that it’s purely self-interested over a short time span. After all, global warming is going to frack with China just as bad as any other country.
So to believe what S&N say, that only cheap clean energy can persuade China to develop differently, you have to believe that China is willing to condemn the entire world — including itself — to a future of drought, floods, disease, desertification, and rising sea levels. The idea that China would be immune to such considerations strikes me as a piece of cultural condescension, perhaps borderline xenophobia.
2. Influencing China. Corporatists say we shouldn’t take action on climate change until China does; greens respond that China won’t take action until we do; S&N respond that even if we put regulatory constraints on our economy, China won’t follow suit. So what to do? How could we influence China to take action?
First, one should note that, unbeknownst to most Americans, America is not the main driver of most nations’ behavior. They don’t spend all their time watching us and talking about us. I imagine that some citizens of other countries go hours, sometimes days, without even thinking about us once (I know!). There are internal dynamics in China that matter a hell of a lot more than domestic U.S. politics.
But still, what could we do that might set an example for China? S&N’s idea is to drive down the cost of clean energy by brute force (money). That doesn’t do much for me — leaving the industrial paradigm basically intact, just plugging in new central generators.
Here’s a blue sky idea that deserves better than being tacked onto the end of a blog post: Let’s reconfigure our economy to align environmental and economic incentives. Let’s make compact cities with zero-carbon buildings, powered by renewable energy via privately or municipally owned micro-grids that are connected to a larger high-voltage countrywide grid, with high-speed electric trains shuttling people to and fro. Let’s radically reduce the amount of energy we use while boosting our quality of life. And let’s show that we can do all this in the context of a robust, competitive, growing economy.
That — shifting to a new paradigm rather than tweaking the old industrial paradigm — would really inspire China. It would inspire the world. You always hear about the possibility of the developing world “leapfrogging” dirty Western development straight to something better? But what? Let’s model what there is to leapfrog to.