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Olympic Ceremony an Example of Cheap Talk on Global Warming

“Doing something” about global warming is hard and requires economic sacrifice. Of course, you will never hear this inconvenient truth from our environmental leaders. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, for example, would have you believe that achieving a post-carbon economy will make us all rich. Trying to control the world’s temperature is exorbitantly expensive, because it requires a total overhaul of how we use energy. Thus, global warming talk is cheap; action is hard.

My point was demonstrated nicely (if indirectly) by the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics. According to the Huffington Post,

The Opening Ceremony at the Rio Olympics Friday evening was filled with celebrations of Brazilian culture and unity. But for a few brief moments, the message was polarizing and crystal clear: The world must do whatever it can to stop climate change. 

“The heat is melting the ice cap,” a voice said. “It’s disappearing very quickly.”

An accompanying segment showed effects of the melting polar ice cap and subsequent rising sea level on places that include Amsterdam, Dubai, Lagos, Shanghai, Florida and Rio de Janeiro itself. A green peace sign shone in the middle of Maracana Stadium.

Now let’s compare the cheap talk above to the difficulty of doing something. Unlike global warming, the waterways in and around Rio are an actual catastrophe. Indeed, Rio’s promise to clean up the eleven rivers that flow into Guanabara Bay was a major reason it won the right to host the Olympics, and it was supposed to be legacy of these 2016 games. But, again, it’s much more difficult to act than it is to run one’s mouth. In the face of other priorities, budgets were slashed. Of eight treatment plants promised, only one ever got built. As a result, the water remains filthy. Olympians will be competing in water in which floating bodies—usually animals, but sometimes human—are a secondary concern to the pervasive raw sewage.

To be sure, mitigating water pollution is not the same as eliminating the world’s carbon footprint. For starters, fighting water pollution on a global scale is a far less onerous endeavor that doing something about climate change. More importantly, cleaning water of sewage and carcasses yields demonstrable results. It is likely to be worth the cost, even if the cleanup is inefficient (i.e., characterized by corrupt government contracts). By contrast, overhauling the global economy to decarbonize energy use is “worth itonly if global warming is catastrophic, which is extremely unlikely.