What is in this article?:
- Developing nations major contributors to pollution, climate change emissions
- A long, slow process
- Climate modeling getting better
- Potential impacts of climate change
The difficulty in thinking about climate change, says Richard Carson, economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, “is that there are many who say this could never, ever be true,” and even those who may accept the underlying premise of the physics behind climate change “may say there are better things to spend our money on now, that people in the future are going to be wealthier than we are — let them deal with the problem.'
RICHARD CARSON, left, University of California, San Diego economics professor, delivered the Mississippi State University Department of Agricultural Economics centennial lecture on climate change. With him are Steve Turner, center, head of the MSU Department of Agricultural Economics, and Keith Coble, MSU professor of agricultural economics.
Climate modeling getting better
But, he says, the science of climate change continues to move forward, as computer systems get more powerful and more data are collected to provide more accuracy in climate modeling. “Scientists are getting better at fingerprinting what we should expect to see.” Still, “They’re just hard problems to solve, and they get harder as they get more realistic.
“From the very beginning, economists were pretty good at laying out all the key issues. They didn’t solve them – but they knew what they were.”
Proposals to limit carbon emissions through a tax, or cap and trade schemes, have not been supported, Carson notes.
Environmental groups, he says, “thought it immoral to do what the economists wanted to do — put a price on pollution. It’s ironic that now the environmental groups have learned the lesson of the economic carrot: that if you want less of something, you tax it.
“We now know the way we went about improving environmental quality was a complete and total disaster — we got lower environmental quality and much higher prices than if we had implemented pollution taxes.
“Why did this happen? Politicians like to protect the current industrial complex, so they grandfathered in the old technology, which meant most pollution control requirements were applied to new plants. This killed technological innovation, whereas if we had enacted pollution taxes we’d have had lots of technological innovation.
“This caused economists to move more away from thinking about pollution taxes and more toward cap and trade solutions — the thinking being that you can give out permits to existing polluters, and in the long run you’re putting a price on pollution just like you would with a tax, and you get the dynamic incentives. And there’s a lot of consensus that dynamic incentives matter more than what you do in the short run.
“The major failing of the original economic vision was that they saw the cost of delay as being low. If they had done what William Nordhaus (Yale University economist) recommended in 1976, and imposed a carbon tax, this problem in the U.S. would have been solved. Instead, they kept delaying.”
The key driver of technological change and innovation is higher prices,” Carson says. “At $100 a barrel for oil, there are a lot of alternatives that can be adopted. But at $30 a barrel, which it was a few years ago, a lot of new technologies just don’t pencil out. So, one way to drive technology is to put on higher prices, and a lot of stuff will be developed, but the question is, can you scale it up?”
If economic sectors are divided into those that are sensitive to climate and those that aren’t, only about 5 percent of the U.S. economy is classified as climate sensitive, he says. “But it’s very different in a lot of developing countries — in India for example, the percentage would be very high.”
But, “If you warm Siberia, what happens? You get a lot of good agriculture.”
Early climate change proposals failed to forecast that developing countries would generate as much emissions as they have, Carson says, “and it’s now acknowledged that plans in which developing countries would do nothing was a bad decision. Initial forecasts were it would take 15 years or more for China to match the U.S. in CO2 emissions, but it happened much sooner than that.”