Monday, September 22, 2014

Dismal climate realities

Initially I read this article by Robert Stavins the way he must have intended it: realistic, and profoundly pessimistic. Nobody knows climate policy and climate economics better than Stavins, and most of what he says is indisputable. But upon re-reading, some of it started to rankle...
In the United States, the issue is mired in partisan politics, and the outlook is not promising for an effective national climate policy that would encourage carbon-friendly innovation and cost-effective emission reductions by putting a price on carbon emissions — either by taxing them or using a national cap-and-trade system that would make it more expensive to pollute. Rather than rewarding today’s voters with benefits financed by future generations, as Congress typically does, solving the climate problem will require costly actions now to protect those who will follow us. 
Making matters more difficult, climate change is essentially unobservable by the public....
Well, something here is not quite right, Bob... not quite "realistic." Your paragraph elides the partisan congressional gridlock on climate policy on the one hand, and the public-goods problems that make climate action so challenging on the other—viz., the costs are mostly in the present, and the benefits mostly in the (distant) future; and the benefits are shared, and thus subject to free riding. But you see, the thing is this: there was and likely still is a (big-D) Democratic majority for cap-and-trade, despite the clear obstacles to building political support that you so clearly identify. The proof is in California. Meanwhile the handful of former Republican supporters (e.g. John McCain) have largely abandoned ship. In the United States, at least, the political divide is between those who acknowledge the problem and its challenges and those who either deny the problem or cynically obstruct progress for short-run political gain.

I suppose Professor Stavins is thinking that by bending over backwards to appear politically neutral, his legitimacy, prestige, and expertise may in some small way help win back the necessary Republican minority support for what needs to be done. But his willingness to obscure history, if not rewrite it, is troubling. Not to mention unrealistic.

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