The Brass Tack

Let's get down to it.

Carbon copycats

Posted by srconstantin on July 14, 2009

Matt Zeitlin doesn’t like Anne Applebaum’s argument against carbon treaties.

Also, the reason people who work on global warming want an international treaty that establishes caps for everyone’s carbon emissions is because many governments don’t see the point of taking a short-term economically negative, politically controversial stand on global warming without some assurances that there will be coordinated global so that their carbon policy won’t be for naught. Ultimately, the reason we have the treaties, the documentaries, and the PR campaigns is to convince policymakers to put caps on carbon, increase the price of carbon and invest in alternative energy — all of which Applebaum seems to support.

think the real question isn’t whether or not Applebaum’s column makes any sense — it doesn’t — but why she wrote it. After all, she agrees with the mainstream consensus among people conerned about global warming that we need to get the incentives right to spur alternative energy advancements. But because it’s de rigueur for columnists to make a big show of disagreeing with some aspect of any consensus, especially liberal ones, Applebaum ends up sounding very strange.

Well, actually, the column does make sense. She says that global coordination for climate change through international treaties will be very hard. And it will. It’s a massive coordination problem; every country has an incentive to free ride. (Here’s a paper on the game theory of climate change treaties, written by economists at Columbia and NYU. Notable results: the Kyoto treaty was not a self-enforcing treaty. Because there is no world government, countries cannot commit themselves to sign binding contracts. It is possible to have a self-enforcing treaty, but countries would have to credibly commit to increase their emissions in case any country defects on the treaty.) It’s also important to remember that not all countries are equally invested in prevented climate change. Russia would be better off if the world got warmer and it had maritime access to the Arctic as ice melted. The countries likely to be hardest hit are poor, equatorial countries that aren’t the main emitters. A fair, successful treaty is an enormous challenge.

But if treaties probably won’t work and the US alone can’t reduce carbon emissions, is all hope lost? No, for a reason Applebaum touched on but Matt seems to have missed. If we make carbon expensive here in the US, it will be profitable for engineers and entrepreneurs to come up with cheap alternative energy. We spend all the R&D money and pay more for energy — but once we come up with our new gadgets, other countries can copy them on the cheap. The real issue here is developing countries: China and India. They’re not likely to accept a treaty that means a drop in their standard of living just as they’re emerging into prosperity. But they do seem willing to mitigate climate change if they can afford it — China in particular has been quite active on that domestically — so exporting American clean-energy inventions might work better than treaties. Think of electronics: they used to be designed here and manufactured (or knocked off) in Asia. Now companies like Lenovo are making their own innovations. A similar pattern could work for clean energy.

Matt’s point about treaties is essentially that they’re good political theater, that they “convince policymakers to put caps on carbon, increase the price of carbon and invest in alternative energy.” But that’s always a shaky argument because theater can inspire politicians to equally theatrical gestures, like the weak Waxman-Markey bill. And anyhow, domestic carbon policy isn’t for naught globally, because we can be the world’s lab for green energy. Maybe we should keep trying for treaties, but we shouldn’t depend on them.

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