Why U.S. leadership on climate change is still a good idea

The day that climate change negotiations begin in Bonn, Germany, a few days after meetings of “major economy” (and major emitting) countries, and with a major climate bill in the United States working its way through Congress, Harvard economist Martin Feldstein argues that a U.S. cap-and-trade system as set out by this legislation just isn’t worth it. This comes after the release of a report that found that 300,000 people a year die from climate change disasters and that $125 billion are lost from the economy. In the face of these numbers, Feldstein’s alleged cap-and-trade “tax” of $1,600 per American family seems almost niggling. (economics credentials notwithstanding, though, Feldstein’s numbers in piece are not entirely trustworthy; he glaringly errs in describing Congress’ Waxman-Markey bill as mandating CO2 reductions to 83 percent of 2005 levels by 2020, when in fact it calls for reaching these levels only by 2050).

But even granting that American consumers will be affected by the cap-and-trade system — calling it a “tax” seems a rather subversive way of describing the market dynamics that will naturally follow, on all sectors, from greening the economy — Feldstein’s opposition to U.S. efforts to curb climate change is both common and underwhelming. He argues that because global warming affects the entire globe, of which the United States makes up only a small part (but fully a quarter of CO2 production), U.S. emissions reductions are not worthwhile until other major emitters commit to similar steps.

This is a familiar argument, and it is appealing for obvious reasons. Why should the United States suffer the costs of enacting tough climate legislation if developing economies like China and India are going to pump CO2 into the air anyway? The key is the word “until;” if Feldstein had argued that the United States should not pursue strict regulations unless China and India do as well, he would have been in the right. Global warming is only going to be slowed by all countries taking action. But to wait until every country in the world commits to steep CO2 reductions is a fool’s errand; the planet only gets warmer, and we can’t sit around waiting for everyone to stand up in unison. The United States has a chance to lead this effort — and leap ahead in green technology in the process — that the Obama Administration, committed to improving U.S. relations with the world, would be foolhardy to pass up.

While admittedly frustrating in the face of looming deadlines and an ever-warming planet, the progress that countries are making toward a global agreement, is also encouraging. As one delegate in Bonn told Reuters, “the fact that [the meeting’s draft text]’s been criticised from all sides probably means it’s balanced overall.” The strongest objections at Bonn thus far, in fact, seem to come from activists dressed up as snowmen and cactuses. I’d take China and India as negotiating partners any day.

(image from flickr user Step it Up 2007 under a Creative Commons license)