Wealth of Nations April 2007

Global Warming: Winners and Losers

Scientific evidence does not affirm Al Gore's most alarming hypotheticals about global warming or the costly changes in policy he recommends.
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The prevailing ethic of intellectual corruption is the one identified by my colleague Jonathan Rauch in his column in this magazine on March 10. He quoted an environmentalist who said he chose not to speak honestly about the prospects for successfully adapting to climate change, because, as this man put it, "In the current political situation, I don't want to provide any ammunition for the moral cretins who are squirming frantically to avoid policies that might impact their corporate donors." There speaks a moral cretin, if I ever heard one.

The discussion that needs to start is among people who recognize that the issue is real but who can differ—without rage or sneering—on the severity and urgency of the problem, and on how best to proceed. Where are those people?

I have offered my own suggestion for first steps more than once. It is mainstream, uncontroversial economics. Introduce an initially moderate carbon tax (for which, as it happens, there would be a strong case even if global warming were not an issue) with a presumption that this will be raised over time, unless our fears about climate change turn out to be exaggerated. Use the proceeds to cut other taxes, and to finance an accelerated program of research on carbon capture, clean-coal technologies, and other low-carbon energy sources; on technologies for adaptation (because whatever happens, we seem likely to have to live with further warming); and on possible catastrophic discontinuities in the outlook (such as an unexpectedly sudden melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice or the breakdown of the Gulf Stream, and other alarming possibilities that remain shrouded in scientific uncertainty).

Gore's view is that this is a failure to match thinking to the scale and urgency of the problem. He proposes much bigger and more sudden changes in economic policy, a proliferating array of new environmental regulations, an instantly severe cap-and-trade regime for carbon emissions, and other measures amounting to an abrupt and massive reorientation of the economy. He claims, again, the overwhelming support of climate scientists in this—but that claim is false. Many no doubt do agree, and are willing to lend their scientific credentials to these demands. But many others, and I would guess most, simply have nothing to say on these aspects of the matter, regarding them as lying outside their areas of expertise and preferring not to be Lomborged if they can help it.

I used to think that the upshot of global-warming alarmism would be a surge of political pieties amounting to nothing. I still think that this more or less sums up the European response (which Gore praises as an example to the rest of the world), enshrined in the incompetence and hypocrisy of the Kyoto Protocol (which Gore likewise applauded). Talk about it endlessly; sign big bold international treaties about it; and see nothing much change. This is Europe's specialty. Because I believe that climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed, I used to fear that the result of Europe's impotent posturing and America's abdication of leadership on the matter would be too little action. Now I'm looking at that Yale Center survey and wondering if I was right.

Gore has conducted an astonishingly successful campaign—helped, as I say, by the dismal quality of his principal opponents. I think he has changed the political calculus, and it was tending in his direction to start with. Even if it has to wait for the next administration, Washington is going to wade into this issue. If it can settle for a carbon tax, well and good, and I will let Gore take some credit. But will that satisfy the growing demands for action? The scope for misdirected policy is vast—see Gore's 10-point plan to reshape our lives—with costs that could run into the trillions of dollars. I don't know if the overwhelming majority of climate scientists would agree with me, but something along those lines now looks a distinct possibility.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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