Getting past ideology to action on global warming

A fascinating article in The New Yorker examines the complex interplay of science, politics, market economics and morality in the global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Definitely worth the time to read.

In one section that speaks to the emotions running through the debate of how best to dramatically lower CO2 emissions, reporter Michael Specter discusses a proposal by environmental group Carbon Conservation to pay tropical forest landowners not to cut down their trees. The proposal would rely on market-based carbon-trading allowances to make the needed payments, a solution rejected by other environmental organizations.

Environmental organizations like Carbon Trade Watch say that reducing our carbon footprint will require restructuring our lives, and that before we in the West start urging the developing world to do that we ought to make some sacrifices; anything else would be the modern equivalent of the medieval practice of buying indulgences as a way of expiating one’s sins. “You have to realize that, in the end, people are trying to buy their way out of bad behavior,” Tony Juniper, the director of Friends of the Earth, told me. “Are we really a society that wants to pay rich people not to fly on private jets or countries not to cut down their trees? Is that what, ultimately, is morally right and equitable?”

Specter refers this argument back to Richard Sandor, chairman and CEO of the Chicago Climate Exchange, whose members buy and sell the right to pollute.

“Frankly, this debate just makes me want to scream,” he told me. “The clock is moving. They are slashing and burning and cutting the forests of the world. It may be a quarter of global warming and we can get the rate to two per cent simply by inventing a preservation credit and making that forest have value in other ways. Who loses when we do that?

“People tell me, well, these are bad guys, and corporate guys who just want to buy the right to pollute are bad, too, and we should not be giving them incentives to stop. But we need to address the problems that exist, not drown in fear or lose ourselves in morality. Behavior changes when you offer incentives. If you want to punish people for being bad corporate citizens, you should go to your local church or synagogue and tell God to punish them. Because that is not our problem. Our problem is global warming, and my job is to reduce greenhouse gases at the lowest possible cost. I say solve the problem and deal with the bad guys somewhere else.”

Remember, all of these people agree that we need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions as much as we possibly can. I suppose it’s a sign of progress that the raging debate now is how — not whether — to do that. Unfortunately, the window of time for debate is rapidly closing and decisions need to be made by government, business and activist leaders on how to proceed. Mistakes are likely to be made, but the greatest mistake of all is allowing our ideological differences — such as social justice vs. capital market efficiencies — to stand in the way of action.

February 22nd, 2008

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