Framing the climate-change debate — poorly

BushatpodiumI was startled by the wankiness of this post at the normally extremely sensible Celsias, in which Joe Brewer, “an atmospheric scientist who analyzes the language of political discourse,” doesn’t like that President George W. Bush proposes to address climate change partly by making it easier for developing countries to buy clean-energy technology from the United States.

Let me stipulate off the top that Bush has spent most of his presidency saying either that climate change isn’t happening or that it isn’t a serious problem or that there’s not much he can do about it. It’s hard to say whether the Bush administration or the Chinese Communist Party is a bigger obstacle to beginning serious work on a global solution to a global problem. Under Bush, the U.S. federal government’s record on climate change is very, very, very bad. Not as bad as Canada’s, but bad.

That said, I don’t think Brewer is doing himself any favours with his deconstruction of a speech Bush gave at the end of May. You’ve got to read the whole thing to grasp how snooty — and wordy, and blindingly obvious — it is, but I’m going to quote a bit from the end:

The central premise [of Bush’s speech] is that a “free market” will fix everything. This is an interesting claim considering that the market we have now is already quite “free” from trade barriers, and the climate problem is only growing worse!

It is not true that the market is “quite ‘free’ from trade barriers.” Indeed, it’s developing countries that are the most ticked-off about how unfree of barriers it is, since it’s exceptionally difficult for many of them to gain access to developed countries’ markets with the goods they have to sell, particularly agricultural ones. We subsidize our domestic producers so sharply that Third World farmers can’t compete, even if they pay themselves starvation wages. We in the developed world like selling things to them, but don’t like buying things from them. Our insistence on preserving these trade barriers, both explicit and implicit, is what’s just about killed the latest round of global free-trade talks. We’re the problem, not them.

The hidden assumption behind this story is that we can consume all of the energy that we want (with a disproportionate share going to Americans) as long as the technologies are clean and the market is unregulated.

Is at least the first part of that not true? As long as the technologies are clean, what difference does it make how much power we use? If I can kit my house out with its own solar panels and windmills, whose business is it what I do with the power I generate?

Now, that’s almost certainly not the most efficient way to stop producing so much greenhouse gas, and not everyone can afford it, and those are serious problems with the approach. But if, in fact, all the power we generated came from clean technologies, we wouldn’t have a problem.

And that’s why the trade-barrier thing is such a consequential matter. It’s very hard to convince a poor country to build run-of-river hydro plants, solar and wind farms, or nuclear plants when it can have coal power much more easily and cheaply. Somehow, either clean technology needs to be made cheaper, or poorer countries need to have the prosperity to spare to buy it. It’s easy for comfortable people like us to say that those countries should invest in sustainable electricity generation because it’ll be better for them down the road — and they should, because it will — but that’s a hard sell for a government struggling with double-digit unemployment and angry people in the streets.

Brewer’s criticism of clean energy’s potential to mitigate the climate-change problem is all the more peculiar in light of Celsias’s subsequent post, a little positive note about Oregon’s legislating a tax credit for new solar water-heating installations. So where’s Oregon’s commitment to getting its people to reduce their consumption of hot water, huh?

I’ve no doubt that Brewer is right in his underlying conclusion: Bush was using the promise of fighting climate change not for its own sake, but to push the general idea of free markets and trade. Although I’ve written here that I’m surprised by how far Bush has gone in calling climate change a serious problem, I’m under no illusions that he’s the guy who’ll help America do its part to solve it.

Nevertheless, Brewer’s sneering at the idea that trade and capitalism have anything to do with climate change and efforts to avert it play right into the climate-change skeptic view that the whole climate-change issue is an orchestrated lie to push an agenda of anti-consumerism for its own sake, massive government intervention in the economy, and wealth redistribution both domestic and international. This is not helpful.


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