He expands on the theme in his latest column:
I don’t especially mean to pick on Samuelson, but this column exemplifies a strange thing about the climate change debate. Opponents of a policy change generally believe that market economies are wonderful things, able to adapt to just about anything — anything, that is, except a government policy that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Limits on the world supply of oil, land, water — no problem. Limits on the amount of CO2 we can emit — total disaster.
Funny how that is.
Even with stringent limits, says the M.I.T. group, Americans would consume only 2 percent less in 2050 than they would have in the absence of emission limits. That would still leave room for a large rise in the standard of living, shaving only one-twentieth of a percentage point off the average annual growth rate.This is vital stuff. The denier/delayer/confusion lobby has cost us precious decades, when responding to climate destabilization would really have been much easier.
To be sure, there are many who insist that the costs would be much higher. Strange to say, however, such assertions nearly always come from people who claim to believe that free-market economies are wonderfully flexible and innovative, that they can easily transcend any constraints imposed by the world’s limited resources of crude oil, arable land or fresh water.
So why don’t they think the economy can cope with limits on greenhouse gas emissions? Under cap-and-trade, emission rights would just be another scarce resource, no different in economic terms from the supply of arable land.
Needless to say, people like Newt Gingrich, who says that cap-and-trade would “punish the American people,” aren’t thinking that way. They’re just thinking “capitalism good, government bad.” But if you really believe in the magic of the marketplace, you should also believe that the economy can handle emission limits just fine.
So we can afford a strong climate change policy. And committing ourselves to such a policy might actually help us in our current economic predicament.
Right now, the biggest problem facing our economy is plunging business investment. Businesses see no reason to invest, since they’re awash in excess capacity, thanks to the housing bust and weak consumer demand.
But suppose that Congress were to mandate gradually tightening emission limits, starting two or three years from now. This would have no immediate effect on prices. It would, however, create major incentives for new investment — investment in low-emission power plants, in energy-efficient factories and more.
To put it another way, a commitment to greenhouse gas reduction would, in the short-to-medium run, have the same economic effects as a major technological innovation: It would give businesses a reason to invest in new equipment and facilities even in the face of excess capacity. And given the current state of the economy, that’s just what the doctor ordered.
This short-run economic boost isn’t the main reason to move on climate-change policy. The important thing is that the planet is in danger, and the longer we wait the worse it gets. But it is an extra reason to move quickly.
So can we afford to save the planet? Yes, we can. And now would be a very good time to get started.
We're like the grasshopper in the old grasshopper vs. ant fable now, seeing the impending winter at last -- so, yes, it's going to be harder than it should have been.
But that's water under the bridge now.
The thing to do is begin -- get off coal ASAP -- by 2012, Washington and Oregon can be free of coal plants and making a serious reduction in the amount of coal drawn from the Montana plants.
Anything less is a weird form of suicide -- we use the poison now, but the damage hammers not us, but the people we hope to leave behind us.