Sunday, August 20, 2006

The uneven costs of global warming

Speaking of Cass Sunstein, he wrote an article in the Washington Post this past Friday ("Limiting Climate Change: The Neglected Obstacle") on the fundamental geopolitical obstacles to limiting global climate change. It's easy for someone to say, "That's exactly what I've been saying," but, seriously, the article says exactly what I've been saying for quite some time. And, of course, I'm not the only one. But Sunstein does manage to put the argument into very succinct, logical, fact-based terms (whereas my arguments are rarely fact-based). Basically, the obstacle is that the U.S. and China are the top greenhouse gas producers (with China shortly to overtake the U.S. for the #1 spot), and, accordingly, will bear the brunt of any emissions cuts needed to limit global warming. At the same time, both China and the United States are less likely to suffer the adverse effects of global warming than other countries--particularly India and those in Africa. (Sure, you get the odd Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., but even the enormous costs of cleaning up those messes pales in comparison to the costs you face by reducing fossil fuel emissions by 70 or 80 percent. This is even more so if you build your cities in anticipation of greater hurricane activity, instead of building them haphazardly over swamps and flood zones as was the case in most of New Orleans over the past 25 years.) China, by contrast, might actually benefit from global climate change (as will some other countries, such as Canada) as higher temperatures increase crop yields.

But a separate point that Sunstein doesn't mention is that both China and the United States are in geopolitical contest with each other. The reasons why this is so are irrelevant here--it could be a will to power (if you are an old-fashioned Realist a la Hans Morgenthau), it could be a desire for security in an anarchical international environment (if you are a Neo-Realist a la Kenneth Waltz) or, under some circumstances, it could just be a desire to become richer than everyone else (perhaps if you are a New Trade Theorist). The point is that, if the international environment has any zero-sum attributes (that is, a gain by me requires a loss to you, and vice versa), then neither China nor the U.S. would agree to anything that has any chance of harming their economies unless the other agrees to do something that causes proportionately equal harm to its economy as well. (For both Realists and Neorealists, this is because economic strength can be translated into international power.) The proportionality of the other side's harm is important here, not just the absolute value of the economic harm, because of the zero-sum nature of geopolitical power.

It is here that Sunstein's conclusions fall apart. In particular, he states:

But the troubling fact remains: The two nations now most responsible for the problem have comparatively little incentive to do anything about it. That is why, if the nations of the world really mean to take substantial steps to reduce greenhouse gases, they have two options.

First, they might find a way to convince the United States and China that they have a moral obligation to protect the planet's most vulnerable people. The United States has long benefited from technologies that, while promoting its economic growth, are imposing serious risks on disadvantaged people in India, Africa and elsewhere.

Second, the world's nations might try to convince these two countries that emissions reductions are less expensive, and more beneficial for their own citizens, than the recent projections suggest. Environmentally friendly innovations have often turned out to be far less costly than anticipated. (And if persuasive evidence is found that indicates greater losses for both nations from global warming, there will be a stronger incentive to try to innovate.)

It is only with such an incentive, or a sense of moral duty, that the United States and China are likely to participate in serious international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. And without the participation of the two countries, no such efforts are likely to have a substantial effect on the problem.

There are some clear problems with Sunstein's proposals. The first involves convincing the United States and China that they have a moral obligation to "protect the planet's most vulnerable people." The second is convincing these two countries that "doing the right thing" is far less costly than all the evidence suggests is the case. Not to be too blunt about it, but both obviously involve some wishful thinking.

The first proposal suggests that moral suasion is a powerful force in geopolitical affairs. Evidence on this is, at best, scant. I would go so far as to suggest that if countries could be morally persuaded to take upon themselves such enormous costs "merely" to help the world's most vulnerable people, we would not be worrying about global warming to begin with. We would have solved war, poverty and hunger a long time ago. But to suggest that countries take upon themselves such costs when, quite possibly, they believe such costs may jeopardize their national security (as Realists and Neorealists would argue) is to suspend disbelief to such an extent that even George Lucas starts to make sense. In other words, Sunstein believes we need to convince China and the U.S., on moral grounds, to do something that they may well believe is starkly contrary to their national security. Furthermore, what we need to convince them to do is even more contrary to their national security if the other one doesn't go along with the plan, or cheats.

Sunstein's second point, of course, is even more clearly problematic. Basically, even though all the evidence currently indicates stopping global warming is very expensive and detrimental to economic growth, we need to convince them that it is not. And we need to start doing this by finding evidence that contradicts the evidence we currently have. I'm not sure if what he is proposing here is a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, or an attempt to prove a negative. But if that is what is necessary to save the world, you might want to learn to swim.

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