Energy & Environment

A vigorous global response to a global economic threat. Why is climate change so different?

Dan Farber

Imagine a problem: it’s global; it stems from an extremely complex, interconnected system; it has major economic implications.  Sounds like climate change, or in other words, like the kind of problem that the world can’t seem to address effectively. But no, it’s not Global Climate Change, it’s Global Economic Change. And the world seems to be coalescing without much fuss around major regulatory initiatives.

From the NY Times, a story about how the major governments came together and adopted tough rules to deal with potential global crises:

BASEL, Switzerland — The world’s top bank regulators agreed Sunday on far-reaching new rules intended to strengthen the global banking industry and shield it against future financial disasters.

The new requirements more than tripled the amount of capital banks must hold in reserve, an effort to bolster their financial strength and provide a cushion against potential losses. They come two years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers set off a worldwide banking crisis that required billions in government bailouts. But the rules could also reduce bank profits, strain weaker institutions and raise the cost of borrowing for businesses and consumers.

I’m struck by how different this picture is than climate change.  We don’t see any Recession Denialists arguing that the economy is actually in great shape, or accusing economists of colluding to cook the data to make it look like we have economic problems.  We don’t see U.S. Senators talking about the “hoax” of economic recession. The Great Recession also involves inconvenient truths, but they’re truths that seem to go down a bit easier — though I gather from Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong that some of their colleagues attribute the recession to natural fluctuations in the economic system, which isn’t so different from some forms of climate denial. Even the remaining economic believers in the absolute perfection of the markets, however, do admit that fewer people have jobs and GDP is down.  That’s at least a step on the road to reality.

There are several key differences between economic instability and climate instability, of course. Probably most importantly, the Great Recession has already happened, which makes action much easier than it would have been before the fact. And the change was faster and more dramatic. If the Antarctic ice sheets had collapsed as fast the stock market did a few years ago, we’d have fewer people trying to deny the reality of climate change.

Also, although the banking industry is powerful and may experience some short-term pain as the result of a regulation, no one is talking about getting rid of money and replacing it with something altogether different. But we are talking about stopping the use of fossil fuels to a large extent and moving in an entirely different direction. So it’s not too surprising that an international response to the financial crisis is a bit easier than the energy transformation required by climate change.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice to see a similar story like “Economic Regulators Agree on Global Response to Climate Change”? Not going to happen, I’m afraid, or at least, not anytime soon.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet, a Berkeley Law-UCLA Law collaboration.

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Comments to "A vigorous global response to a global economic threat. Why is climate change so different?":
    • Anthony St. John

      Carl, the increasingly tragic fact of life on planet earth is that IPCC type scientists, physicists, etc. could have done something to prevent out of control global warming consequences decades ago after the Keeling Curve went exponential.

      So scientists no longer have enough credibility to prevent politicians from ignoring them, especially after scientists ignored Keeling for so long.

      [Report abuse]

    • Carl Williams

      Mr St. John:
      I posted a response to a Mitch who thinks climate change is the biggest scam ever perpetrated in history.It can be viewed on Professor Dan Farbers letter.Contended that climate change can be compared to the economic global melt down,major difference many seek to fix the Banking system but could ignore the beginning of and ice age.

      [Report abuse]

    • Carl Williams

      I hate to tell you this John but the Atlantic current conveyor will stall
      because of the massive melt that is taking place.Green house gases solar flairs,choose from the smorgasbord of calamities that are facing us, science has chosen to ignore all but reward.Pure science was something bordering on inspirational now nothing more than forgotten ideals.

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John '63

      Professor Farber, this post is too good for me to pass on. The fact is that neither politicians, economic regulators, or any international group really wants to deal effectively with this the way it needs to be dealt with. Otherwise we would have had a solution before now.

      You really need to look a the root cause of our failures to prevent global warming from getting out of control, the scientific culture, before you start looking to other institutions for miracles to make the right things happen.

      On September 09, 2010 at 12:46 pm I documented “QUOTES ON WHY CULTURAL FAILURES HAVE FAILED TO PREVENT GLOBAL WARMING CALAMITIES” on Professor Kammen’s “Energy for a living future — we still have options” post, quotes which pointed directly at scientists as the root cause of why nothing is getting done today.

      To this list, I now wish to also add one more conclusion in a quote from Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 book “The Ascent of Man”: “— the intellectual leadership of the twentieth century rests with scientists. And that poses a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government and that the state wants to harness. But if science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism. — It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.”

      Bronowski reinforced President Eisenhower’s grave warning quote that I posted because science still allows itself to walk to close to government, harnessed by the state, threatening calamity of the human race, and I ask you one question to prove this point:

      Why are hydrogen bombs that also threaten humanity still controlling the resources of UC National Labs, instead of dedicating all of those resources implementing controlled fusion generators as soon as possible to prevent further global warming calamities?

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