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America’s Anti-Environmentalists

Kenneth Rogoff is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and was formerly chief economist at the IMF. His last piece on Webdiary was Where Did Market Volatility Go? Read this in conjunction with an Australian view by Justin Tutty.

by Kenneth Rogoff

As an American, I am appalled, ashamed, and embarrassed by my country’s lack of leadership in dealing with global warming. Scientific evidence on the risks mounts by the day, as most recently documented in England’s magisterial Stern Report. Yet, despite the fact that the United States accounts for roughly 25% of all man-made global carbon emissions, Americans show little will or inclination to temper their manic consumption.

The first George W. Bush administration was probably right to refuse to sign the so-called "Kyoto Protocol," albeit for the wrong reasons. Among other problems, the Kyoto Protocol does not go far enough towards redistributing carbon emission rights towards developing countries. But why can’t the US bring itself to raise taxes on gasoline and other sources of carbon emission like coal burning power plants? It is not like the US government, running a huge deficit despite an economic boom, does not need the money.

Many people seem to think that the Bush administration is the problem. Put a Texas oilman and his buddies in charge and what do you expect, conservation? Unfortunately, that is a facile excuse.

American citizens’ resistance to moderating energy consumption for the sake of the global environment is much more deeply embedded. Consider former US Vice President Al Gore, for example, whose documentary film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, is celebrated for its unflinching look at how fossil fuel consumption is leading mankind to the brink of catastrophe. The evidence on global warming is considerably more muddled than Gore’s film suggests, but the basic problem is real.

Unfortunately, however, Gore was not successful in carrying the torch on global warming when he was a politician. One cannot commend the 1990’s Clinton-Gore administration for taking any brave steps aimed at radically reducing carbon emissions. Small wonder: the American public is fiercely resistant to anything that seriously forces them to compromise on their energy-burning, gas-guzzling lifestyle.

It is not just politicians who have failed to provide leadership here. The venerable New York Times editorial page was apparently opposed to an energy tax until only recently, when the newspaper finally endorsed the idea. Like many liberals, the Times’ editors worried that higher energy taxes would fall disproportionately on the poor.

The typical argument one hears is, "What about the poor guy with the gas-guzzling 1980 Chevy car, who has no other way to get to work?" It is a legitimate point, but if ocean levels start rising, as the Stern Report predicts, a lot of our children will be swimming to work some day. The need for corrective measures to alleviate inequality is no excuse for inaction on global warming.

The change of position by the Times, unfortunately, does not herald an about-face in the American electorate. Mention the idea of an energy tax to any potential 2008 US Presidential candidate, and their faces will pale. It is fine to say that you care about the environment or to claim, as Bush seems to do, that miracle technologies will solve the problem without too much pain. But any 2008 Presidential candidate that dares to talk about making sacrifices now for a safer environment later will really be sticking his neck out.

Until Americans suck it up and start fixing global environmental problems that they, more than anyone, have caused, it will be difficult to get the wholehearted support of the rest of the world. Developing countries ask why they should pay attention to global warming if rich countries are not prepared to curtail their own emissions sharply? Why should poor countries worry about how deforestation contributes to global warming when rich countries remain so profligate?

The scientific evidence suggests that carbon emissions from anywhere in the world have about the same impact on global warming. For this reason, a wide range of economists favor a uniform ("harmonized") global tax that would tax carbon emissions equally everywhere in the world, and from whatever source – whether coal, oil, or gas, and whether consumers or businesses.

Such a tax is the most flexible and market-friendly approach, and would have the least impact on economic growth. Instead, the complex system of quotas favored by the Europeans and embodied in the Kyoto Protocol is likely to lead to much larger inefficiencies and costs. For this reason, England’s Stern Report is probably far too optimistic when it calculates that an eclectic approach to reducing carbon emissions will cost the world only 1% per year of income. But the Stern Report is still right to argue that the potential risks of continued inaction are far greater.

America’s unwillingness to take the lead on environmental issues may some day be regarded as one of the country’s most profound political failures. One hopes that it changes course soon, before we all are forced to wear swimsuits to work.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

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