Mon, Jun 09, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The climate domino that needs to be knocked

By Paul Krugman  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Maybe it is me, but the predictable right-wing cries of outrage over the US’ Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rules on carbon seem oddly muted and unfocused. I mean, these are the people who managed to create national outrage over nonexistent death panels. Now US President Barack Obama’s administration is doing something that really will impose at least some pain on some people. Where are the eye-catching fake horror stories?

For what it is worth, the attacks on the new rules mainly involve the three C’s: conspiracy, cost and China. That is, right-wingers claim that there is not any global warming, that it is all a hoax promulgated by thousands of scientists around the world; that taking action to limit greenhouse gas emissions would devastate the economy; and that, anyway, US policy cannot accomplish anything because China will just go on spewing stuff into the atmosphere.

I do not want to say much about the conspiracy theorizing except to point out that any attempt to make sense of current US politics must take into account this particular indicator of the US Republican Party’s descent into madness. However, there is a lot to say about both the cost and China issues.

On cost: It is reasonable to argue that new rules aimed at limiting emissions would have some negative effect on GDP and family incomes. Even that is not necessarily true, especially in a depressed economy, where regulations that require new investment could end up creating jobs. Still, the odds are that the EPA’s action, if it goes into effect, will hurt at least a little.

However, claims that the effects will be devastating are not just wrong, but inconsistent with what conservatives claim to believe. Ask right-wingers how the US economy will cope with limited supplies of raw materials, land and other resources, and they respond with great optimism: The magic of the marketplace will lead us to solutions. Yet they abruptly lose their faith in market magic when someone proposes limits on pollution — limits that would largely be imposed in market-friendly ways like cap-and-trade systems. Suddenly, they insist that businesses will be unable to adjust, that there are no alternatives to doing everything energy-related exactly the way we do it now.

That is not realistic, and it is not what careful analysis says. It is not even what studies paid for by opponents of climate action say. The US Chamber of Commerce recently commissioned a report that was intended to show the terrible costs of the forthcoming EPA policy — a report that made the least favorable assumptions possible in an attempt to make the costs look bigger. Even so the numbers came out embarrassingly small. No, cracking down on coal will not cripple the US economy.

Yet what about the international aspect? At this point, the US accounts for only 17 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, while China accounts for 27 percent — and China’s share is rising fast. So it is true that the US, acting alone, cannot save the planet. It needs international cooperation.

However, that is precisely why we need the new policy. The US cannot expect other countries to take strong action against emissions while refusing to do anything itself, so the new rules are needed to get the game going. And it is fairly certain that action in the US would lead to corresponding action in Europe and Japan.

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