I’ve been confused about this Paris climate conference and how the world should move forward to ameliorate climate change, so I séanced up my hero Alexander Hamilton to see what he thought. I was sad to be reminded that he doesn’t actually talk in hip-hop, but he still had some interesting things to say.
First, he was struck by the fact that on this issue the Republican Party has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship — a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.
This week’s Paris conference, I observed, seems like a giant Weight Watchers meeting. A bunch of national leaders get together and make some resolutions to cut their carbon emissions over the next few decades. You hope some sort of peer pressure will kick in and they will actually follow through.
I’m afraid Hamilton snorted.
The co-author of the Federalist papers is the opposite of naive about human nature. He said the conference is nothing like a Weight Watchers meeting. Unlike weight loss, the pain in reducing carbon emissions is individual but the good is only achieved collectively.
You’re asking people to impose costs on themselves today for some future benefit they will never see. You’re asking developing countries to forswear growth now to compensate for a legacy of pollution from richer countries that they didn’t benefit from. You’re asking richer countries that are facing severe economic strain to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in “reparations” to India and such places that can go on and burn mountains of coal and take away U.S. jobs. And you’re asking for all this top-down coercion to last a century, without any enforcement mechanism. Are the Chinese really going to police a local coal plant efficiently?
This is perfectly designed to ensure cheating. Already, the Chinese government made a grandiose climate change announcement but then was forced to admit that its country was burning 17 percent more coal than it had previously disclosed. The cheating will create a cycle of resentment that will dissolve any sense of common purpose.
I countered by pointing out that policymakers have come up with some clever ways to make carbon reductions more efficient, like cap and trade, permit trading and carbon taxing.
The former Treasury secretary pointed out that these ideas are good in theory but haven’t worked in reality. Cap and trade has not worked out so well in Europe. Overall, the Europeans have spent $280 billion on climate change with very little measurable impact on global temperatures. And as for carbon taxes, even if the U.S. imposed one on itself, it would have virtually no effect on the global climate.
Hamilton steered me to an article by James Manzi and Peter Wehner in his favorite magazine, National Affairs. The authors point out that according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the expected economic costs of unaddressed global warming over the next century are likely to be about 3 percent of world gross domestic product. This is a big, gradual problem, but not the sort of cataclysmic immediate threat that’s likely to lead people to suspend their immediate self-interest.
Well, I ventured, if you’re skeptical about our own policies, Mr. Founding Father, what would you do?
Look at what you’re already doing, he countered. The United States has the fastest rate of reduction of CO2 emissions of any major nation on earth, back to pre-1996 levels.
That’s in part because of fracking. Natural gas is replacing coal, and natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide.
The larger lesson is that innovation is the key. Green energy will beat dirty energy only when it makes technical and economic sense.
Hamilton reminded me that he often used government money to stoke innovation. Manzi and Wehner suggest that one of our great national science labs could work on geoengineering problems to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Another could investigate cogeneration and small-scale energy reduction systems. We could increase funding on battery and smart-grid research. If we move to mainly solar power, we'll need much more efficient national transmission methods. Maybe there’s a partial answer in increased vegetation.
Hamilton pointed out that when America was just a bunch of scraggly colonies, he was already envisioning it as a great world power. He used government to incite, arouse and energize great enterprise. The global warming problem can be addressed, ineffectively, by global communiqués. Or, with the right government boost, it presents an opportunity to arouse and incite entrepreneurs, innovators and investors and foment a new technological revolution.
Sometimes like your country you got to be young, scrappy and hungry and not throw away your shot.