April 21, 2008
The Coming Bursting of the Green Bubble
In 2018 we will almost certainly look back on Earth Day 2008 as the high point of the Green Bubble. We will cast our eyes over our abandoned backyard gardens and chuckle softly to ourselves about how we once thought they were the solution to skyrocketing emissions in China. We will wonder why we were more worried about future droughts caused by climate change than we were by the worst global food shortages in 30 years, which were triggering food riots at the same time that we were flipping through our special Earth Day issue of the New York Times Magazine. And we will remember how, just months later, the Green Bubble burst and images of food riots abroad and economic hardship at home finally replaced images of melting glaciers, stranded polar bears, and the lists of the 1,001 Things You Can Do to Prevent Eco-Apocalypse.
Until then, those who find Earth Day 2008 vapid and annoying will have to content themselves with burrowing through the celebration of Earth! for little bits of insight, like the one offered to us by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last Sunday. Kristof wrote a insightful column of why cap and trade is ecologically irrelevant unless it is backed with at least $20 billion per year for clean energy technology.
Kristof's column comes at an interesting moment. On the one hand, magazines and newspapers like Time, Mother Jones, and the New York Times Magazine are filled with the dual message that global warming can be solved by a) the same kind of pollution limits that worked for acid rain or, b) micro-actions like planting a garden and eating less meat. On the other hand, forward-thinking elites -- from Tony Blair to the British scientific journal Nature to Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs -- are increasingly speaking out about the limits of pollution controls and the desperate need for massive government investment in clean energy.
Why does Kristof get climate when so many others miss the point entirely? In a word, China.
magine that we instituted a brutally high gas tax that reduced emissions from American vehicles by 25 percent. That would be a stunning achievement -- and in just nine months, China's increased emissions would have more than made up the difference.
Kristof confronts the claim -- peddled by greens who fear complexifying the climate debate -- that honest recognition of the fact that we do not have all the clean tech we need is tantamount to taking the Bush administration line that we should sit on our hands and do nothing.
Mr. Pielke and his colleagues argue that the best hope for salvation will be investment in new technologies -- and that's why I asked the climate deniers not to read this column, for it can sound a bit like President Bush's "solution."
The difference is that Mr. Bush has used modest investments in hydrogen as a substitute for immediate action, while what we need is vast investments on top of a drive to curb emissions through a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system. In the best of worlds, it will be enormously difficult to persuade China and India to rely less on coal-fired power plants, and it will be utterly impossible unless we take serious steps ourselves.
Kristof gets climate intuitively because he lived and reported from China as a journalist. He understands Chinese emissions aren't skyrocketing, as one woman said to me after a recent talk, "because they want our goodies," but rather because China and the rest of the developing world is creating an energy-intensive infrastructure and human environment -- roads, sanitation lines, electricity lines, schools, buildings, homes, hospitals -- that we in the West mostly take for granted. Cap and trade in the U.S. won't accelerate China's transition to a clean energy economy, and micro-practices like taking shorter showers, eating less meat, and installing better light bulbs are ecologically irrelevant in the context of our energy-intensive built-environment.
My view is that the personal practices only matter ecologically to the extent that they help build a political movement capable of winning massive government investment in creating and deploying new energy technologies. I'm happy that doing the right thing makes people feel good. I certainly feel good when I ride my bike, take BART to work, and eat locally. But if engaging in ecologically-aware micro-practices reinforces the widespread view that the Chinese can't have what we have, then they are dark side of the Green Bubble that can't burst fast enough.