Foreign Policy Blogs

Regardless of Science & Debate, The Climate Wins

Toles - Washington Post Feb 22

In 2005, global warming doomsayers warned that Hurricane Katrina was so destructive that it could attributed only to a threat as pervasive as global warming.  Similarly, this winter’s record snowfall in the Eastern U.S. has led many, mainstream media outlets to link the unusual weather events to accelerating climate change.  In stark opposition, others arguing that recent winter blizzards demonstrate that climate change is a hoax.  Snow is, after all, not warm.

Such a range of environmental anecdotes have arisen alongside recent climate “scandals,” which have evoked hysteria over whether climate scientists have been misconstruing environmental data.  All of this falls within the larger debate over the legitimacy of climate science in general.

To be clear, this debate is less over if climate change is happening.  Measured across a variety of metrics – sea levels and ocean acidification, atmospheric temperature data, melting glaciers, chemical composition of air, biomass and vegetation patterns and precipitation patterns – there is overwhelming evidence that the globe is undergoing a significant shift.  Instead, argument arises over why, as Thomas Friedman asks, “…the hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous.”  Is this all just part of a natural climate cycle?  Or is increased human activity to blame?

To answer such a wide-reaching question, stakeholders are weighing in from every direction, effectively creating a noisy echo chamber that is replete with confusion and inaccuracies.

This debate misses a broader point: it is that economic growth, quite apart from being the underlying cause, may be an necessary condition for effectively mitigating environmental degradation.  Notwithstanding certain market inefficiencies (i.e. the pricing of externalities), economic growth, in the context of wise government regulation, remains essential for sustaining ecological improvement.

Here are three ways in which what’s good for the economy is good for the environment:

1: The Dismal Science of Scarcity

Environmentalists did not invent the notion of scarce resources. Economies, however rudimentary, are all developed on the assumption that there is not enough for everyone to have everything – especially primary goods – and there never will be.  This is why mechanisms such as wages and pricing work fairly well, as they force us to make choices over what we are able to consume.

As the world’s population increases and consumption patterns evolve, to deliberate whether resource conservation is worthwhile is a red herring.  The conservation of costly resources has always been essential.  The degree to which it is promoted and the avenues through which it is pursued constantly change and deserve attention.  But, scarcity is the fundamental concept underlying all economic activity.

2: More Than Just Guns and Butter

If a growing number of people are drawing upon a finite (and in many cases, dwindling) supply of goods, resources eventually dry up.  A common proposal is to decrease the demand.  Malthusians, for example, advocate restrictions on unchecked population growth.  Since energy consumption from non-renewable sources is increasing faster than population, fewer people would lessen overall demand for energy resources, thus restoring an (imaginary) equilibrium.

Distressed environmentalists also decry consumption and are faithful that a reduction in economic development and subsequent affluence will shield us from the destructive horrors of prosperity.  Put differently, the rich should own less and do less while the poor catch up to an acceptable middle ground.  One of the many problems with each of these ideologies is that they require backwards movement and are thus futile.

Rather than focusing on a reduction in overall demand,  a partial solution is to diversify demand.  Consider sources of energy across various nations.  In China, coal and oil supplied the vast majority (90 percent) of the country’s total energy consumption requirements in 2006.  In India, coal accounts for more than half of that country’s total energy consumption, followed by oil, which comprises over 30 percent. In each country, renewable energy accounts for less than 1 percent of total energy consumption.

In the United States, by contrast, the energy mix is much more diverse.  Consumption of coal and oil energy sources represents just over half of total consumption, while renewables account for close to 10 percent.

The energy mix of a country’s consumption demonstrates that as economies become more sophisticated, people are able to exercise their demand across an increasingly broad menu of choices.  In doing so, the extraction and reduction of a single resource (ie. coal) is diffused and ultimately lessened.  What’s more, a diverse economy is encouraged through complimentary economic practices such as open trade, the free flow of information and robust innovation.  The mantra, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” then becomes true not only for the growth of an economy, but also the preservation of the natural environment.

3: Innovation Wins

Being mindful of scarcity and advocating economic diversity often points to a complimenting trend.  Involving the inter-relation of scientific evidence, rapid mobilization of technology, future-oriented thinking and a sense of urgency, innovation becomes an essential component of any vibrant economy.  In basic terms, innovation leads to increased productivity and is the fundamental source of increasing wealth in an economy.

In order to maintain or increase global competitiveness, an ad-hoc approach to innovation is insufficient.  On a global scale, the countries that advance are those which provide new goods, or improve upon existing ones systemically.  In the 19th century, for example, more and more people were fed thanks to advancements in agricultural tools and techniques.  In the 20th century, fossil fuels powered vehicles, and fertilizers became increasingly complex, allowing the food supply to more than keep pace with growing populations.  In the 21st century, under the “third industrial revolution,” energy delivery systems are becoming cleaner and pollution control mechanisms more advanced.  Today, modified seeds yield more growth, on less land allowing for more people to be better fed.

As it becomes increasingly necessary to extract more from less, those that try to maintain a small number of limited, outdated structures are doomed to fail. In this new wave of innovation, the expansion of global markets decreases pressure on ecological systems.  As in past centuries, the country that innovates most efficiently wins. Only now, so too does the environment.

What Role Does the United States Government Play?

To a large extent, we rely on market efficiencies to coordinate the actors, resources, prices and distribution of demand and supply relationships.  Regarding the uptake of sustainable advancements however, one of the most significant market failures is the wide range of policy distortions that currently exist.  These include a lack of financial incentives for public industries, energy subsidies to households and fuel subsidies for transportation.  In a 2007 McKinsey & Company report, it is estimated that by reducing fuel subsidies (mainly in Mexico, Venezuela and the Middle East), by 80 percent globally, demand for road transportation fuel would be reduced by 5 percent or 2.5 million barrels of fuel per day.

These types of distortions are compounded by a general lack of information that consumers face.  For example, households are unaware of the cost of their energy choices vis-à-vis the alternatives and tend make energy choices based on non-financial factors.  For companies, multiple, fragmented energy costs often go unnoticed.

Policy distortions exist alongside poor information and agency inefficiencies to create a considerable threat.  These distortions delay a positive change in consumption behavior and limit the boost for demand-side efficiency investments.

Sustainability is not entirely self-directing.  To help, a wider range of cooperation is required, involving not only markets, but institutions, governments and regulatory boards.  The most competitive governments will play an increasingly global role in furthering economic prosperity, to ensure environmental sustainability across national borders.


Climate science is not an exactitude and has yet to provide verification that human activity is causing the earth to warm.  On this basis, many believe that climate solutions ought to be avoided.  Remarkably, climate change advocates have built the necessary emotional and moral thrust behind the issue to make economic change an acceptable means through which we save on scarce costly resources, increase energy efficiency and draw upon resources that are abundantly available, such as wind, sun, and biomass.

Increasingly, the long-term, global performance of a country can be guaged by how effectively it is delivering environmental solutions through an array of innovative products or processes that increase output while using fewer resources and creating less waste and pollution.  Further, these goals must now be achieved within a growing framework of tightening environmental regulations.

Columnist George F. Will has observed that, “People only insist that a debate stop when they are afraid of what might be learned if it continues.”  In regards to the legitimacy of climate change, a continuing debate should frighten no one.  Regardless of science, the climate wins, by way of economic prosperity.