by: Michael Hoexter
In Part 1 of this post I summarized US and worldwide efforts to create legal standards to limit GHG emissions and described the political opposition to these efforts as based on a narrow conception of liberty, negative liberty, popular among conservatives over the last three decades. I introduced two types of ethical system, deontology and utilitarianism as helpful in understanding the debates over climate legislation.
The Supposed Wealth vs. Green Tradeoff
Lomborg and other critics of "green" point out how many advantages fossil fuels offer residents of the developed world. Large cars, minivans, and SUVs have become key enablers of an extremely mobile lifestyle for families, allowing them to lead a hyper-mobile lifestyle, where much family life is conducted on the go. Electric or plug-in hybrid versions of these people carriers are just a few years away, so this lifestyle or some future version of it may gradually become independent of fossil fuels.
One of the more recent and cleverer arguments that counsel inaction on the climate is the notion that fossil fuel use is equivalent to social wealth and this wealth prevents more harm and maximizes more pleasure than the attempt to “go green” and slow global warming. Popularized by Bjorn Lomborg and now repeated by many, this argument is based on the narrower form of utilitarian ethics mentioned in Part 1 that suggests a limited scope of knowledge about future events is wise; present pleasures and pain avoidance loom larger than dangers to future pleasures or the threat of future pain.
A version of the wealth vs. green tradeoff argument most recently available in a column of the New York Times by climate “skeptic” John Tierney, suggests that wealth both precedes and is a cause of the greening of an economy, with wealth premised on fossil fuel use. The general structure of this argument is not new, as opponents of environmentalism have often portrayed environmental protection as a concern of the idle rich or at least inessential to economic growth. Tierney attempts to divert attention from government regulation’s effect on the greening of economies by suggesting that wealthy people start to care about their environment and that somehow from there we see, through a presumed market effect, more efficient and cleaner use of natural resources. Many commenters to Tierney’s blog post (perhaps one positive is that Tierney’s opinionated views function as bait for commenters who actually know what they are talking about…but you have to dig to find them) are quick to point out that the relationship between wealth and environmental improvement is not linear and is initiated almost invariably by government regulations.
Whatever the factual inaccuracies that both Tierney and Lomborg use to reinforce their positions there are some important issues related to fossil fuel use and development that need to be attended to in this discussion. While Tierney and Lomborg counsel slow action or inaction on climate, many countries of the developing world accuse the West of a double standard in seeking to curb fossil fuel use and therefore some representatives of developing countries feel entitled to ramp up the use of fossil fuels to spur their own development. Fossil fuels are energy “caviar”, very concentrated portable energy, stored in molecular form, that are still plentiful and fairly cheap in many areas of the world, though on a world historical scale will eventually become scarce. It is also true that all of the current industrial and now post-industrial powers have had access to and now still use fossil fuel to fuel their development. Furthermore energy use of any kind at some level of energy-intensity is a hallmark of developed or rich countries; development and a society’s wealth can be defined as shifting from using human musclepower alone to using powered equipment to make useful products and deliver useful services. Some commentators call this a shift from exclusively endosomatic (inside the body) to exosomatic (outside the body) energy.
Leapfrogging the use of coal to power industrial development in places like China and India is one of top global priorities in the area of climate. The fatalism of climate "skeptics" is not going to get us close to a solution.
Lomborg styles himself to be a defender of the developing world in suggesting that getting rich by repeating the West’s development path is the highest priority for most of the world, while Tierney sees himself simply as a realist in suggesting that the sequence of events from fossil fuel use to greening the economy is a natural history. However both are prey to a key fallacy that leads to their peculiar views, what might be called the “fallacy of continuity”. Both Lomborg and Tierney assume that change and development happen as a continuous process: that the future is simply an incremental change from the past. In this they are not alone as the U.N.’s International Energy Agency and US Energy Information Agency forecasts for energy use both show a similar tendency to stress continuity (continued growth in fossil fuel and renewable use in parallel) with regard for the climate protection goals enunciated by their sister agencies. Both authors must show themselves to be utterly convinced that climate change will be moderate or insignificant in its effects. And crucially both think that economic development will continue and must continue in the same way it has occurred in the past. This leads Tierney, for instance, who almost always selects those snippets of data that suit his political framework, to overlook the “break points” in the history of environmental quality, when a regulation actually kicked in and reduced emissions or increased energy efficiency.