You Can’t Save the Planet by Ruining the Economy

The issue of global warming has become a classic morality tale: the heroic environmental activists battling the evil temperature deniers. Despite the efforts of Newsweek, among many others, to prevent any debate on the issue, even the science remains at issue. As NASA had to acknowledge, the 1990s really weren’t the hottest decade on record. The 1930s were. Oops!

The other great elephant is “solutions.” If the goal is to stop warming–in contrast to adapting to any problems as they occur–the cost would be hideous. As Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post:

The global-warming debate’s great unmentionable is this: We lack the technology to get from here to there. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 doesn’t mean it can happen. At best, we might curb the growth of emissions.

Consider a 2006 study from the International Energy Agency. Using present policies, it projected that emissions of carbon dioxide (a main greenhouse gas) would more than double by 2050; developing countries would account for almost 70 percent of the increase. The IEA then simulated an aggressive, global program to cut emissions that is based on the best available technologies: more solar, wind and biomass energy; more-efficient cars, appliances and buildings; more nuclear energy. Under this admitted fantasy, global emissions in 2050 would still slightly exceed 2003 levels.

Even the fantasy would be a stretch. In the United States, it would take massive regulations, higher energy taxes or both. Democracies don’t easily adopt painful measures in the present to avert possible future problems. Examples abound. Since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, we’ve been on notice to limit dependence on insecure foreign oil. We’ve done little. In 1973, imports were 35 percent of U.S. oil use; in 2006, they were 60 percent. For decades we’ve known of the huge retirement costs of baby boomers. Little has been done.

One way or another, our assaults against global warming are likely to be symbolic, ineffective or both. But if we succeed in cutting emissions substantially, savings would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that from 2003 to 2020, the number of vehicles in China will rise from 26 million to 120 million, average residential floor space will increase 50 percent and energy demand will grow 4.4 percent annually. Even with “best practices” energy efficiency, demand would still grow 2.8 percent a year, McKinsey estimates.

In short, even if global warming is a problem requiring action, more government central economic planning and control is not the answer. Rather than adopting energy restrictions that would ruin the economy, we should the increased wealth of the future to adapt to any sustained, long-term climate changes.