Viewpoint

What Hamilton might say about climate change

With no enforcement mechanism, the Paris climate conference is perfectly designed to ensure cheating.
With no enforcement mechanism, the Paris climate conference is perfectly designed to ensure cheating. TNS

I’ve been confused about this Paris climate conference and how the world should move forward to ameliorate climate change, so I séanced up my hero Alexander Hamilton to see what he thought.

First, he was struck by the fact that on this issue the GOP has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship – a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.

This week’s Paris conference, I observed, seems like a giant Weight Watchers meeting. A bunch of national leaders get together and make some resolutions to cut their carbon emissions over the next few decades. You hope some sort of peer pressure will kick in and they will actually follow through.

I’m afraid Hamilton snorted.

The co-author of the Federalist papers said the conference is nothing like a Weight Watchers meeting. Unlike weight loss, the pain in reducing carbon emissions is individual but the good is only achieved collectively.

You’re asking people to impose costs on themselves today for some future benefit they will never see. You’re asking developing countries to forswear growth now to compensate for a legacy of pollution from richer countries that they didn’t benefit from. You’re asking richer countries that are facing severe economic strain to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in “reparations” to India and such places that can go on and burn mountains of coal and take away U.S. jobs. And you’re asking for all this top-down coercion to last a century, without any enforcement mechanism. This is perfectly designed to ensure cheating, which will create a cycle of resentment that will dissolve any sense of common purpose.

I countered by pointing out that policymakers have come up with some clever ways to make carbon reductions more efficient, like cap and trade, permit trading and carbon taxing.

The former Treasury secretary pointed out that cap and trade has not worked out so well in Europe. Overall, the Europeans have spent $280 billion on climate change with very little measurable impact on global temperatures. And as for carbon taxes, it would have virtually no effect on the global climate.

Hamilton steered me to an article in his favorite magazine, National Affairs. The authors point out that according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the expected economic costs of unaddressed global warming over the next century are likely to be about 3 percent of world gross domestic product. This is a big, gradual problem, but not the sort of cataclysmic immediate threat that’s likely to lead people to suspend their immediate self-interest.

Well, I ventured, if you’re skeptical about our own policies, what would you do?

Look at what you’re already doing, he countered. The United States has the fastest rate of reduction of CO2 emissions of any major nation on earth, back to pre-1996 levels.

That’s in part because of fracking. Natural gas is replacing coal, and natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide.

The larger lesson is that innovation is the key. Green energy will beat dirty energy only when it makes technical and economic sense.

Hamilton pointed out that he used government to incite, arouse, energize and stir up great enterprise. The global warming problem can be addressed, ineffectively, by global communiqués. Or, with the right government boost, it presents an opportunity to arouse and incite entrepreneurs, innovators and investors and foment a new technological revolution.

David Brooks writes for the New York Times.

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