The Economist’s Survey on Global Warming

The Economist has a lengthy survey on global warming. The introduction shows they are more open to examining the science than American conservatives:

This survey will argue that although the science remains uncertain, the chances of serious consequences are high enough to make it worth spending the (not exorbitant) sums needed to try to mitigate climate change. It will suggest that, even though America, the world’s biggest CO2 emitter, turned its back on the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the chances are that it will eventually take steps to control its emissions. And if America does, there is a reasonable prospect that the other big producers of CO2 will do the same.

They look at the science and at the economics of global warming. Some areas could actually benefit from global warming. “Not all the change will be bad. An extra couple of degrees might not do northern Europe any harm. Russia could benefit hugely from a bit of warming: large parts of the country that are currently uninhabitable could become comfortable enough to live in. The 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves that are reckoned to be in the Arctic, much of them in Russia, would become easier to get at.” Despite these benefits, they find that overall gloobal warming is a serious threat which makes economic sense to take action on:

Out of the fog of uncertainty over the economics of climate change, the outline of a few conclusions emerges. Global warming poses a serious risk, and the costs of mitigation are not so large as to be politically unthinkable. Mitigation is better done gradually than swiftly, because the faster it is done, the more it will cost. That said, the economics of the subject are too uncertain for policymakers to lean heavily upon them, so in the end it will be the politicians who decide.

Different players are examined. Problems of global warming may worsen as China develops. Businesses are becomming more environmentally friendly, often at the urging of government. In the United States, views vary, with signs of improvement, especially if Bush and the Republicans are voted out of office:

The passionate argument about climate change going on inside America is not always obvious to the rest of the world. Some greens in other countries tend to write America off because it chose not to ratify the Kyoto protocol, because the federal government has consistently refused to adopt a mandatory system for restricting emissions, and because American public opinion is relatively indifferent to global warming (see chart 5). Yet the politics of global warming in America are more complex than that, and are changing.

The federal government’s inaction contrasts with a flurry of activity at lower levels of government. The mayor of Seattle has started an initiative to get cities to aim for Kyoto targets, and 279 cities have signed up. Seven north-eastern states have set up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—emissions stabilisation followed by cuts, with a trading scheme—and six western governors are agitating for federal action.

California is particularly interesting, for two reasons. First, the Hummer-driving Mr Schwarzenegger is, improbably, one of the greenest politicians in the world. This may in part reflect his personal convictions, but also chimes with the views of Californians, who are much more environment-minded than other Americans. Second, the state has long experience of adopting tougher environmental regulations than other parts of America, and of gauging their economic impact.

On August 31st, California became the first state to legislate for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions—by 25% by 2020. The bill was opposed by most Republican legislators. Mr Schwarzenegger has also set a target for cutting emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. (Oregon has a target of 75%, and the governor was clearly determined not to let some northern girlie-man steal the crown of greenest governor.) By 2010, 20% of California’s energy is to be generated from renewables. . .

Opinion in America as a whole is shifting a little in California’s direction. Hurricane Katrina brought the issue to the fore. Scientists had given warning that climate change might cause “extreme weather events”. Katrina demonstrated what such an event—for which the government was unprepared—could look like. Individuals thought about their safety; businesses about their balance sheets.

The White House’s sceptical stance lost credibility last year when it emerged that Phil Cooney, chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, had been editing scientific reports to emphasise uncertainties in climate science. Mr Cooney resigned and joined Exxon Mobil.

The steady drumbeat of stories attributing all manner of evil to climate change is getting louder: California burning (because the woods are too dry); ski resorts struggling (because the snow line is rising); alligators in Florida eating people (because their pools and thus their food supplies are drying up); polar bears eating each other (because melting ice makes it harder for them to hunt).

Several of America’s wealthiest and best-organised foundations have raised the temperature by making climate change one of their big issues. The Hewlett Foundation’s Hal Harvey and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s Eileen Claussen are key figures in commissioning research and working on politicians. The sceptics can call on funding from companies keen to avert federal action, but the green think-tanks outgun them. Myron Ebell of the Competititive Enterprise Institute, who calls them “the forces of darkness”, says they receive “huge amounts of money from charitable foundations. The children and grandchildren of capitalist buccaneers are soft left.”

Their activities have helped create a curious new alliance whose members disagree about almost everything except global warming. Jim Woolsey, a Prius-driving former head of the CIA, who numbers himself among them, calls it “a coalition of tree-huggers, sod-busters, cheap hawks and evangelicals.”

Sod-busters, explains Mr Woolsey, is a south-western term for farmers. Farming subsidies are continually under threat, but when the federal government started subsidising ethanol production and wind power, farmers realised that renewable energy offers new streams of revenue. Turbines are a lucrative alternative to turnips.

The cheap hawks, which Mr Woolsey says include him, are concerned about the vulnerability of oil installations in the Middle East. “Relying on this unstable part of the world for this very important part of our economy is rather worrying.” America does have coal, but coal supplies won’t last forever, so demand for fossil fuels needs to be cut. Mr Woolsey, who backed the Iraq war, is on the advisory board of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, which argues for subsidies to make cars more fuel-efficient and for plant-based alternatives to petrol.

Earlier this year, Christian evangelicals, who have a direct line to the White House, launched the “Evangelical Climate Initiative”, signed by 86 evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren, who runs a mega-church and wrote a bestseller, “The Purpose-Driven Life”. It says that “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbours.”

Not all evangelicals go along with this. According to an opinion poll last year, 33% of evangelicals think hurricanes are a deliberate act of God—which presumably means that man should not mess with them. (Some 13% of non-evangelical Protestants, 15% of Catholics and, bizarrely, 17% of non-religious people agree.) Twenty-two leading evangelicals wrote to the National Association of Evangelicals asking it not to endorse the climate initiative. It didn’t.

Two more important lobbies are coming round to the view that something needs to be done. Hunting and shooting lies close to the heart of the Bush administration (as Dick Cheney showed when he accidentally peppered an old friend). One-fifth of voters hunt or shoot, and two-thirds of hunters and anglers vote Republican. In the first poll of their views, carried out in May this year, 76% of these sportsmen said they had personally noticed climate change, and 78% said that the right way to address America’s energy needs was to conserve more, develop fuel-efficient vehicles and use more renewables. Only 15% thought the right approach was to drill for more oil.

Business is doing its bit. In April this year, eight big energy companies, including GE, Shell and the two largest owners of utilities in the United States, Exelon and Duke Energy, were being questioned by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Six of the eight said they would welcome or at least accept mandatory caps on their greenhouse-gas emissions. Wal-Mart was keen, too.

Does all this add up to federal legislation on mandatory controls? The progress of two bills says “not yet”. One, from Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, has been voted on twice, and got slightly less support in the second vote than in the first. The other, a comparatively modest proposal based on a scheme put together by the National Commission on Energy Policy for a cap-and-trade system with a price limit of $7 per tonne, was part of an energy-bill amendment initially proposed by Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, and Pete Domenici, a Republican. Mr Domenici backed away at the last moment. Earlier this year he and Mr Bingaman published a white paper on how a trading scheme might work.

So on Capitol Hill the issue is not dead but resting. Three things might wake it up: first, a strong performance by Democrats in the mid-term elections; second, and more important, a new president. The favourites for the two parties’ nominations, Mr McCain and Hillary Clinton, both favour mandatory federal emissions controls. Third, the Supreme Court is to rule next year on whether the federal government has the right to control carbon-dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. That will either pave the way for legislation or kill off the possibility.

They conclude by looking at various technological solutions, and the political changes which are necessary to make them possible:

Economics can help make these technologies viable. That can be done in two ways. One is to subsidise early-stage R&D to bring down the price of alternatives. The second is to tax carbon (or set up a cap-and-trade system similar to Europe’s ETS) to push up the price of fossil fuels. Given that governments are reluctant to make themselves unpopular by taxing consumers or constraining companies, there is probably a need for a bit of both.

That leaves the hardest bit of the puzzle: the politics. The best solution would be to get the world’s biggest polluters to share the burden. Kyoto tried to do that, and failed. America, which is now allergic to the word, is not going to accept the protocol, and over time Europe will get fed up with paying for something that is doing no global good. So, in the short term, the world is faced with the choice of no solution or a better-than-nothing approach that might improve over time.

America is the key. If America does nothing, then the developing world’s big polluters will do nothing. If America decides, independently, to constrain emissions at a federal level (and cap-and-trade is much likelier to be acceptable than anything that includes the dread word “tax”), then China and India might come to accept that they have as much to lose as everybody else, and that they should lead the rest of the developing world towards cutting emissions.

Or America might restart the process of involving the rest of the world, possibly at a regional level, through the Asia-Pacific Initiative that it set up in competition to Kyoto. For the moment, the chances of that happening do not look great. But as the weather changes, so does the political climate. Another heatwave, another disastrous hurricane season, and the pressure to take action will become harder to resist. It would need a different name, of course: the Peoria Protocol, perhaps, or the Indianapolis Initiative. Or what about the Crawford Convention, Mr Bush? That would stick the personal brand of the man who likes to enjoy the natural world at his ranch on America’s attempt to save it.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    The Charters Of Dreams says:

    “The sceptics can call on funding from companies keen to avert federal action, but the green think-tanks outgun them.” Well thank god for that — feeling good about oneself by ‘saving the earth’ is what’s most important.

    There’s way to much to respond to here, but let’s just focus on 1) the (lack of) foresight and 2) unintended consequences, a couple of factors always conveniently ignored because they really dilute one’s passions derived from certainty that doom is just over the horizon.

    Monday, January 14, 2008, Indonesia. The world’s first food riot caused by well-intentioned steps driven by “something needs to be done” passions: Indonesians took to the streets, demanding that their government to do something about the price of soybeans, a dietary staple.

    All over the world, food prices are on the rise. For most of the late 1990s and up until 2005, the price of beans on the Chicago Board of Trade had remained stable at about $5 a bushel. Since then, they have shot up over 150 percent, to around $13. Corn has doubled, to $5. Wheat prices have tripled.

    It all started with the 2005 Energy Policy Act, passed by a Republican congress and signed by a Republican president, mandating that an increasing amount of ethanol be admixed with gasoline. The bill was sold as a road to “energy independence” and as lowering the amount of carbon dioxide we emit, reducing dreaded global warming.

    The Act required production of four billion gallons of ethanol in 2006, increasing by approximately 700 million gallons each succeeding year. Enter those familiar characters supply, demand, and price. Supply tightens, prices escalate, and more and more farmers divert cropland from other crops (mainly soybeans and wheat) to corn. In the U.S., most crops are turned into animal feed, but in poorer countries, such as Indonesia (soybeans) or Mexico (corn for tortillas) they are consumed directly.

    It’s too much to go into, but how much cooling will ethanol substitution buy us? Not a hell of lot — probably too small to even empirically detect given the temp. variations observed over the last few decades.

    But — no matter: “something needs to be done.”

    Interesting how The Economist and the coalition of tree-huggers, sod-busters, cheap hawks and evangelicals never saw this coming. What other negative public policy consequences can’t they see coming? Have they really thought it though? Do they really understand the problem and consequences?

    Does it even matter?

    If the 2005 Energy Policy Act driven in large part by global warming hysterics is any guide (and it is), the answer is — nope!

    If The Economist and the coalition of tree-huggers, sod-busters, cheap hawks and evangelicals are embarrassed to be caught with their pants down on this one, they should just take a page from the neo-con spin book on Iraq, i.e., yeah, all this bad stuff we either didn’t realize or really didn’t care about happening since 2003, but remember — it would have been even worse had we “done nothing.”

    Yeah — that’ll fly.

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