False Choices on Climate Change

The politics of climate change has forever been translated by opponents and even some supporters of national and international action as a choice between carbon emissions reductions and economic growth, between virtue and prosperity, and even between the present and the future. You can guess which side of those arguments typically has an advantage.

But as Paul Krugman points out today, research is increasingly documenting the economic benefits of action on climate change:

[T]here has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the I.M.F. paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

If this research breaks though the wall of false choices, then the second line of defense against action on climate change–the first is denial, the second is “we can’t afford to do anything about it”–could begin to crumble, and we can begin to debate “how” more than “whether” to act.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.