Increasing energy use is the primary cause of global warming, but it is also a primary cause of rising prosperity, longer life spans, better medical treatment, and greater personal and political freedom. Environmentalists can rail against consumption and counsel sacrifice all they want, but neither poor countries like China nor rich countries like the United States are going to dramatically reduce their emissions if doing so slows economic growth. Given this, the challenge we face as a species is to roughly double global energy production by mid-century while simultaneously cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half worldwide (and about 80 percent in the United States), so that we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change.Recall the Malthusian thinking that we'd all starve to death due to an exploding population outpacing the supply of food. Didn't happen, mainly thanks to science, technology and man's ingenuity. The same can, and must, happen for the environment.
How could such a massive undertaking be achieved? Not, as environmental leaders insist, by limiting human power but rather by unleashing it. In terms of birthing a new energy economy, regulation is important—it’s just not the most important thing. The highest objective of anyone concerned about global warming must be to bring down the real price of clean energy below the price of dirty energy as quickly as possible—most importantly, in places like China. And, for that to happen, we’ll need a new paradigm centered on technological innovation and economic opportunity, not on nature preservation and ecological limits.
This year or next, China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, the average Chinese still consumes less than 20 percent of the energy consumed by the average American, meaning that the Chinese contribution to global warming is going to grow tremendously. After all, neither the Chinese people nor the Chinese government will accept any solution that does not allow energy consumption comparable to our own. The only way to double global energy consumption while cutting global warming emissions in half is by developing new sources of clean energy.
Recall also that we had our industrial revolution, when our rate of change for advancement and progress was off the charts -- with nary a wit paid to any resulting harm inflicted on the natural world. Can we really now begrudge China the desire to undergo their own industrial era? Who are we to say they can't have what we had, leading to our unprecedented prosperity?
The key difference between now and then is that indeed we now have the science and technological advances we didn't have then that can help not just the Chinese to grow more cleanly, but to also benefit us and the entire planet. Their pollution is our problem too.
The regulation-centered approach to global warming fails because it depends on doing something highly unpopular: raising the price of energy. Fears of political backlash will prevent lawmakers from raising the price of carbon (and thus the price of electricity and gasoline) high enough for clean energy to become cost-competitive. It is for this reason that virtually every congressional proposal to regulate carbon emissions gives industry an “out” if compliance with the law becomes too expensive. The regulation-centered approach is thus doomed to fail in one way or another: Price carbon too high and risk economic consequences and political backlash; price it too low, and dirty-energy sources will not cost enough to make clean energy cost-competitive.I recently echoed this sentiment regarding the vast majority of technological innovations originating from public, not private, funds. All too often private firms take from government-sponsored research and simply create usable products for profit.
The concern over higher energy prices has plagued European efforts to comply with the Kyoto treaty on global warming. EU nations issued too many emissions credits. Thus, neither the regulations themselves nor the resulting low market price for carbon has lowered emissions or raised much money for clean-energy technologies. Little surprise then that, late last year, the United Nations quietly announced that, since 2000, the emissions of the 41 wealthy, industrialized members of Kyoto had gone up, not down, by more than 4 percent.
[C]ontrary to conventional wisdom, private firms rarely initiate technological revolutions. Indeed, government has always been at the center of technological innovation, and most of America’s largest industries have benefited from strategic government investments in their development. Farm land was granted to early American frontier farmers, and agriculture has been publicly subsidized since the early twentieth century. Before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was best known for his aggressive advocacy of publicly funded transit infrastructure: canals, roads, and railroads. During the cold war, government investment was essential to the aerospace industry’s development.
And the GOP has always desired to shrink government, or this massive engine of innovation; imagine where we'd be today if they got their wish many decades ago.
Another apparent reality check is it's better to rely on solutions that depend less on the spine of politicians.
I would urge reading the entire Nordhaus/Shellenberger piece. You don't have to agree with all of their points, but they correctly zero-in on several aspects of modern-day environmentalism that need to be re-examined. To repeat the much-heard phrase, the fate of the planet depends on it.