Environment: September 2008 Archives


September 8, 2008

For some reason, Slate continues to let Gregg Easterbrook write about science. This time, the topic is Thomas Friedman's new "Hot, Flat, and Crowded". I'm not really interested in engaging with most of the piece, which is pretty much the party line [yes global warming is happening but it's not clear it will be that bad; other problems (poverty, clean drinking water, etc.) are much worse; Thomas Friedman is a hypocrite who lives in a big house; the government will screw things up if we let them regulate; industry is innovative!], but the following is just confused:

Friedman concludes Hot, Flat, and Crowded by proclaiming greenhouse damage could cause humanity to be "just one more endangered species." Better to consult history on this topic. Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem. Smog and acid rain, the two previous serious air-pollution problems, once were viewed as emergency threats. Then federal standards were imposed, and inventions and new business models were devised; now smog and acid rain are way down in the United States and declining in much of the rest of the world. And no international treaty governs smog or acid rain! Nations have adopted smog and acid-rain curbs because it is in their self-interest to do so. The same dynamic will take hold for climate change, not long after the United States finally imposes greenhouse-gas rules. Unquestionably the future is flat and crowded. Hot? Maybe not.

I suppose one could argue that GHGs are an air pollution problem, but precisely what distinguishes GHG emissions from other air pollution problems is that the effects aren't localized. In the case of both acid rain and smog (especially smog), the effects are felt near the emissions source so although there are the usual public good/incentive problems, regional authorities can restrict pollutant outputs in their areas and thus control the effects of the pollution. The Beijing olympics provide a good example of this: the air quality in Beijing is bad because of loose emissions controls, but that doesn't mean the air quality in Bali is bad, let alone the air quality in Lake Tahoe. Moreover, when the Chinese decided to improve Beijing air quality for the Olympics, they were able to do so (at least to some extent) without having to consult with every other country on Earth.

By contrast, the effects of GHG emissions are felt globally regardless of the source, so this is a pure public good (well, public bad) issue, with all the attendant collective action problems. We don't have much incentive to control our emissions here in California if people elsewhere aren't going to. Moreover, it seems unlikely that global warming will have equally negative effects on everyone, so the incentives may be even more misaligned (if, for instance, low-emitters are likely to suffer worse effects).

Even more annoyingly, if Easterbrook actually wanted to pick an apropos example, rather than just being glib, there is one readily at hand: chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions. CFCs were widely used as refrigerants and aerosol propellants, but it was discovered in the 1970s that when released into the atmosphere they caused ozone breakdown. Like GHGs, the effects of CFC emission don't occur near the source (in fact, CFCs are the likely cause of the Antarctic "ozone hole"). The good news is that CFC emissions are way down and it looks like the ozone depletion may be starting to slow. How did this happen? An international treaty, The Montreal Protocol, was negotiated (Wikipedia says it took effect in 1989) [BTW, check out the Wikipedia article for the 1980s-era industry denials that anything was wrong.] dramatically restricting the use and emissions of CFCs. Funny that Easterbrook chose to talk about smog and acid rain instead.