The Corner

I Believe Professor Krugman Is Wrong About Climate Change and China

In my experience, any human being — no matter how brilliant — is sometimes wrong. I think that Paul Krugman has demonstrated this with his recent column on climate change and China.

Early on he says that:

The scientific consensus on prospects for global warming has become much more pessimistic over the last few years. Indeed, the latest projections from reputable climate scientists border on the apocalyptic. Why? Because the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are rising is matching or exceeding the worst-case scenarios.

Is his statement that “the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are rising is matching or exceeding the worst-case scenarios” correct? Helpfully, the Congressional Research Service (that noted hotbed of anti-environmental zealotry) did a detailed study about seven months ago titled “Are Carbon Dioxide Emissions Rising More Rapidly Than Expected?” The conclusion of this report is unambiguous: “Recent emissions are below the A1B illustrative scenario and the top of the range IPCC found in published research literature.” Scenario A1B is important, because it is an emissions scenario that is often used as an informal reference case, and the one I typically use for this purpose in my writing on the topic. This report goes on to debunk the interest-group analysis that was widely cited in the media as supporting Professor Krugman’s claim, and makes the further point that there are lots of short-term fluctuations in any such trend that should not be over-interpreted. It’s ironic, of course, that Professor Krugman’s claim is an almost exact mirror image of the claim by many climate change skeptics that the recent ten year run of very little temperature increase falsifies the predictions of warming.

Professor Krugman then goes on to cite severe Chinese resistance to any attempts to restrain their climb out of terrible poverty in the here-and-now in return for a reduction in risk of economic damages many decades from now:

In January, China announced that it plans to continue its reliance on coal as its main energy source and that to feed its economic growth it will increase coal production 30 percent by 2015. That’s a decision that, all by itself, will swamp any emission reductions elsewhere.


Each time I raised the issue during my visit, I was met with outraged declarations that it was unfair to expect China to limit its use of fossil fuels.

So what does Professor Krugman think we should do about this? First he tries to guilt us:

After all, [the Chinese] declared, the West faced no similar constraints during its development; while China may be the world’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, its per-capita emissions are still far below American levels; and anyway, the great bulk of the global warming that has already happened is due not to China but to the past carbon emissions of today’s wealthy nations.

And they’re right. It is unfair to expect China to live within constraints that we didn’t have to face when our own economy was on its way up.

But this ignores the point that the reason the West historically emitted carbon dioxide is that it invented the modern economy. Along with all that carbon dioxide the West put in the air, it also invented polio vaccine, the limited-liability corporation, the high-efficiency power turbine and so on. While the West made a ton of money selling these things to what we now call developing countries, there were and are huge externalities because inevitably a lot of this knowledge leaks. The West invented the basic tools for increasing wealth that the successful parts of the developing world are now using to escape poverty, and incidentally emit more carbon dioxide. It is less than obvious why we would select only one of these items, and determine that we have a moral duty to make reparations for it, without considering that the net global effect of the overall system that created these emissions has been extremely positive. Ask yourself this question: Would you rather be born at the median income level in Bangladesh today, or at the median income level in Bangladesh in the alternative world where the entire Northern Hemisphere had never escaped life at the subsistence level? That is, to live in a world of lower carbon emissions, but no Western science, none of the economic development inside Bangladesh that would not have occurred had the West not developed, no hospitals, no foreign aid, and no meaningful chance of ever changing the material conditions of your life?

Professor Krugman goes on to say that the self-sacrifice of a unilateral reduction in our standard of living for the good of the future world climate will give us moral authority:

As the United States and other advanced countries finally move to confront climate change, they will also be morally empowered to confront those nations that refuse to act.

But he is, if anything, no dreamy-eyed naïf. Professor Krugman is too hard-headed to imagine that the somewhat . . . idiosyncratic negotiating strategy of giving up our leverage, and expecting that this will somehow guilt China into acting will work. So what does he propose?

First this:

Historical injustice aside, the Chinese also insisted that they should not be held responsible for the greenhouse gases they emit when producing goods for foreign consumers. But they refused to accept the logical implication of this view — that the burden should fall on those foreign consumers instead, that shoppers who buy Chinese products should pay a “carbon tariff” that reflects the emissions associated with those goods’ production. That, said the Chinese, would violate the principles of free trade.

Sorry, but the climate-change consequences of Chinese production have to be taken into account somewhere.

And then this:

Sooner than most people think, countries that refuse to limit their greenhouse gas emissions will face sanctions, probably in the form of taxes on their exports. They will complain bitterly that this is protectionism, but so what? Globalization doesn’t do much good if the globe itself becomes unlivable.

It’s time to save the planet. And like it or not, China will have to do its part.

In other words, we should start a trade war with China (and India, Brazil, and the entire rest of the developing world) to force their compliance with an economically destructive program of global emissions mitigation. Excellent.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.


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