Home > AGW, carbon pricing, climate, fossil fuels, Krugman, Weitzman > Paul Krugman: "The only way we’re going to get action … is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral."

Paul Krugman: "The only way we’re going to get action … is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral."

Paul Krugman reaches the above conclusion in his August 1 New York Time op-ed, which asks “Can This Planet Be Saved?”, while discussing the latest work by economists on the cost-benefit analsys of taking action to mitigate potential climate risks – this time by Harvard`s Marty Weitzman, whose work I have discussed several times before).

The op-ed certainly shows the frustration of Krugman, who was one of more than 2500 Nobel Laureate and other economists who in 1997 signed  the “Economists’ Statement on Climate Change” that  acknowledged the conclusions of the preceding IPCC report (that man was having a discernable influence on climate), asserted the economic feasibility of greenhouse gas reductions without harming the American economy, and recommended market-based policies.  Key parts of the op-ed are the following:

What’s at stake in that fight [over environmental policy], above all, is the question of whether we’ll take action against climate change before it’s utterly too late.

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.

Now for the bad news: sheer irresponsibility may be a winning political strategy.

Mr. McCain’s claim that opponents of offshore drilling are responsible for high gas prices is ridiculous — and to their credit, major news organizations have pointed this out. Yet Mr. McCain’s gambit seems nonetheless to be working: public support for ending restrictions on drilling has risen sharply, with roughly half of voters saying that increased offshore drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that’s why I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s response to Mr. McCain’s energy posturing — that it was “the same old politics.” Mr. Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.

(emphasis added)

I think that Krugman has a legitimate concern about pandering to voters on energy prices, even as Krugman`s a bit too close to the political struggle to acknowledge that environmental policies of course affect energy prices, and that “sheer irresponsibility” has been a winning political strategy for as long as – well, for as long as there have been politicians.

As I have noted elsewhere, there is an extremely wide array of opinion that carbon taxes would be the most effective and least damaging approach, and, if rebated or applied to reduce taxes on income or labor, would find long-term political support, yet politicians refuse to mention them, but instead present us with monstrous giveaways like those included in the Warner-Lieberman bill (which McCain`s bill resembles).  Heck, even Exxon, AEI, RAND and the American Council for Capital Formation have come out in favor of carbon taxes! 

Krugman explores Weitzman a little more closely in a July 29 blog post at the New York Times.  That post, and the further discussions it links to, is well worth exploring.  However, one can see Krugman`s train of thought at the very end, where he asks:

The question is, can we mobilize people to make modest sacrifices to protect against low-probability catastrophes in the distant future?

He`s obviously decided over the past few days that the way to mobilize people is to let his dander fly.  While I believe that a little more sophistication is needed, I would note that Gene Callahan, at least, has argued that swinging a moral club is an appropriate weapon, even for libertarians.  I applaud Krugman for letting not only McCain but also Obama feeling some of his lash.

I note that there are some commentators already wringing their hands over Krugman`s moralizing, but they very curiously fail to comment on the very real rent-seeking (and climate risk-shifting) and PR manipulation by fossil fuel interests that lies at the core of the policy deadlock.


PS:  Some of my thoughts on the current policy deadlock are as follows:

– many fossil fuel firms want to be compensated – in the form of new pork for gigantic and iffy “clean coal” projects – for budging from their current free ride on our common atmosphere;

– fossil fuel interests, including their customer chain, have great political pull in both parties (for example, nobody is yet willing to let American car manufacturers suffer their deserved fate, and Byrd and Rockefeller have alotof pull);

– financial firms – other than insurers – all looking for a cap and trade scheme, so they can profit from carbon trading;

– many firms who see opportunities in new technologies are busy fighting for advantage in the draft legislation; 

– not least, politicans are looking for legislation that promises the greatest flow of pork and campaign contributions, and have little interest in being open or hoinest with taxpayers;

– Democrats have little stomach for leadership – at least until the American people finish hanging the Republican party over its disastrous foreign policy and obvious corruption;

– there are considerable opportunities for policies that improve our tax system and regulation of energy resources and infrastructure.  I look for Republicans to start offering them after they have completely squandered their turn at the wheel of state, and are locked again into minority status in Congress.



  1. TokyoTom
    August 6th, 2008 at 04:24 | #1

    Silas, thanks for your comments.

    I’ve fixed the link.

    Second, I agree that Krugman and Callahan can be distingushed: Callahan is arguing for direct and indirect (via the media) pressure on firms/executives – viz., on private actors to change their economic behavior – while Krugman is arguing for moral pressures to change LAWS. My observation would be that communities and nations quite commonly codify social pressure in the form of laws, and moral opprobium is not something easily contained.

    However, I think you’re stretching beyond any useful bounds when you say that Callahan’s argument could also produce the resoult that we don’t need a pricing system/socialism works. I think he’s rather acknowledging that social pressure, especially if organized, can influence corporate actors in effective ways. Plus he’s impliedly arguing that direct regulation is extremely blunt and prone to all manner of mischief, so that non-state actions are, in balance, better. He has a point, but it’s a generalized one that isn’t clearly correct in the case of climate change.

    Third, I agree that it is perfectly fair to frame climate policy *exploiters* as immoral. Sometimes straightforward engagement works better, and moral stands can be self-defeating if, as is common on the Mises blog, the moral stad is a tribal one that enables self-deception and essentially leaves the public stage to the others.

    Finally, as for automakers, it still seems to me that a concern for their welfare is a substantial obstacle to better climate policy. But probably at this point it’s the coal interests that are the more serious problem.

  2. August 4th, 2008 at 18:11 | #2

    First, TT, your Gene Callahan link goes to your blog’s main page rather than his essay.

    But about Callahan’s piece: I don’t think the comparison you made in that context is accurate. Krugman want’s moral suasion aimed at getting the political system right. Callahan, on the other hand, was advocating wishy-washy boycotts of “wasteful” companies. He doesn’t even realize that far from being a good argument, far from being a bad argument, that’s a damning admission of the weakness of his own arguments!

    Why? Because if charitable “public awareness campaigns” can get producers to (for the most part) accurately price in the value of a very vital resource they’re using up, then … wait for it … Socialism works!

    See, we don’t need the price system! Just as we can replace money-driven workers with common-good-driven workers, we can replace profit-driven resource valuation with common-good-driven buyers! “Economic calculation argument? What’s that?”

    Third, if we should be framing climate policy opponents as immoral, why shouldn’t we also be framing climate policy *exploiters* as immoral? Those are the people whose favored course of action involves an unnecessarily wasteful policy designed to achieve non-environmental goals, or very narrowly important environmental goals.

    Finally, I wouldn’t worry about automakers — they can barely afford regular operations, let alone lobbying.

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