Don’t call me Shirley!

Paul Krugman has obliquely responded to my post on the still tragic nature of the commons.

Most of his column is about how crazy everyone who disagrees with him is, but near the end ‘there’s this:

“What about the argument that unilateral U.S. action won’t work, because China is the real problem? It’s true that we’re no longer No. 1 in greenhouse gases — but we’re still a strong No. 2. Furthermore, U.S. action on climate is a necessary first step toward a broader international agreement, which will surely include sanctions on countries that don’t participate.

Let’s be clear.

(1) The US has acted, just not by the sweeping EPA regulations that Paul wants. We have switched out of coal and into natural gas in a big way. US emissions are falling, but global emissions are still rising.

Check it out (note that the article is from 2012):

In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal.

Many of the world’s leading climate scientists didn’t see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action against carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.

The International Energy Agency said the U.S. has cut carbon dioxide emissions more than any other country over the last six years. Total U.S. carbon emissions from energy consumption peaked at about 6 billion metric tons in 2007. Projections for this year are around 5.2 billion, and the 1990 figure was about 5 billion.

China’s emissions were estimated to be about 9 billion tons in 2011, accounting for about 29 percent of the global total. The U.S. accounted for approximately 16 percent.


(2) “U.S. action on climate is a necessary first step toward a broader international agreement”. I would really like to know how Paul knows this. Sure people say it a lot, but it’s just hot air. Do we really think it’s IMPOSSIBLE to get a broad agreement without the US first taking further unilateral action? Cutting emissions more than any other country is not enough to get an agreement, we need to take “action”?

(3) “which will surely include sanctions on countries that don’t participate”. OMG. Sanctions. Like the ones that stopped Assad and Putin? Like the ones we can’t get other countries to go along with in the face of Putin annexing pieces of countries we have treaties with? The Chinese are out there ramming Vietnamese boats, but we’ll just sanction them into drastic emission drops?

Let me put my personal cards on the table. I think carbon emissions are a big problem. We are just finishing a house built to the German Passivhaus standard with rooftop PV solar to make it a net zero energy home (yes I know my unilateral action won’t lower global emissions).

I’m not even saying the US government shouldn’t act. I’d be in favor of a substantial, revenue neutral, plan to tax carbon. And I am in favor of government sponsorship of much more basic research into efficient alternative fuel production, and, God help me, I favor subsidies for energy conservation.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we can control global emissions by our own actions or that we have any feasible way to compel other countries to reduce their emissions. 

7 thoughts on “Don’t call me Shirley!

  1. Pingback: Monday assorted links

  2. I understood Krugman’s comment to mean that a tax on CO2 emissions rolled into a tariff on the CO2 content of imports from countries that did not also have a similar tax on CO2 emissions could be a useful way to advance a global agreement on policies to deal with climate change.

  3. I suspect Krugman expressed himself imprecisely when he said US action is necessary. He wasn’t referring to a decrease in US-based CO2 emissions, he was referring to a US-led legal effort to do so.

    Even then I don’t see his point. It is by no means clear that China will refuse to do anything unless the US “acts”. There is already some recent effort – initiated by the Chinese government – to reduce coal burning simply to reduce polluted air in major cities. Oddly enough, this is happening without the US government pushing them to do so or putting the fear of sanctions into the Chinese.

  4. Even if we can’t compel other countries to control their carbon emissions, we can possibly entice them into it. If we bit the bullet and forced ourselves, with a carbon tax, to become more efficient and to rely more on low-carbon forms of energy, we’d create a market for products that achieve those goals. A market for which American companies would have a natural advantage. Some of those products, supported by the carbon-tax, would – by getting better or by economies of scale – become so economical that other countries will adopt them. Not out of a desire to reduce carbon emissions, but to save money and lower costs. So our policies could create a carrot, not a stick. And also, Americans would be selling the carrots.

  5. Of course there are many ways to achieve the result that this post says is impossible. The WTO exists for exactly this sort of multilateral agreement. Reed Hundt

  6. Reed you should read it more carefully. The post doesn’t say it’s impossible. It says (1) unilateral US government action is not a necessary condition and (2) the US cannot feasibly compel other countries to cut their emissions.

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