Europe Submits to Iron Law of Climate Policy

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJan 24, 2014 1:16 AM


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We ofter hear that global warming is the existential issue of our day. And that reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels will be essential if we are to preserve a livable climate for civilization. People can quibble with the various risk scenarios and which computer models are more accurate and so on, but in the main, I'm not going to argue that standing pat is a wise strategy. So where does this leave me? Well, I view global warming as an incredibly complex, seemingly intractable global problem that is not going to be solved by 1) shutting down existing low-carbon sources of energy; focusing inordinate attention on a vocal minority of climate skeptics (there's an opportunity cost to this obsession); and most of all, 3) ignoring economic realities, such as that highlighted in the headline of today's top New York Times story:

Europe, Facing Economic Pain, May Ease Climate Rules

The symbolism of this development cannot be overstated. Here's why, as the NYT piece succinctly explains:

For years, Europe has tried to set the global standard for climate-change regulation, creating tough rules on emissions, mandating more use of renewable energy sources and arguably sacrificing some economic growth in the name of saving the planet. But now even Europe seems to be hitting its environmentalist limits. High energy costs, declining industrial competitiveness and a recognition that the economy is unlikely to rebound strongly any time soon are leading policy makers to begin easing up in their drive for more aggressive climate regulation.

For a number of years University of Colorado's Roger Pielke Jr. has been pointing out a main flaw in institutional climate policy, which he laid out in his 2010 book, The Climate Fix:

Experience shows quite clearly that when environmental and economic objectives are placed into opposition with one another in public or political forums, it is the economic goals that win out. I call this the iron law of climate policy.

He goes on to write:

Opinions polls show that the public is indeed willing to pay some amount for attaining environmental goals, just as it is with respect to other societal goals. However, the public has its limits as to how much it is willing to pay. What this means is that climate policy must be made compatible with economic growth as a precondition for their success.

This is a fundamental truth that often reveals itself, as Pielke has discussed on numerous occasions. Thus it is perhaps not surprising (though no less astonishing) that Europe, the locus of climate change concern, has seemingly become the latest example of his iron law of climate policy. This doesn't change anything about the existential threat that global warming may well pose. But unless the climate-concerned community starts to recognize the reality of the world they live in (not just the one that's heating heat up, but the one with standard of living costs that weigh on people day to day) then they will deserve a share of the blame for the continuing inaction on climate change. Meanwhile, perhaps we should ask which is impeding real progress on the reduction of greenhouse gases: Denial of climate science or denial of economic realities? Additional reading: Brad Plumer at Washington Post'sWonk blog.

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