A strategy for global stalling

Bush's new, improved, super-shiny plan to do nothing about climate change

Published September 20, 2006 11:20PM (EDT)

Tracing connections, direct and indirect, is one of our favorite pastimes at How the World Works. Today's exercise: finding common ground between Chapter 5 of a new book from the World Bank,"Dancing With Giants: China, India, and the Global Economy," "Energy and Emissions: Local and Global Effects of the Rise of China and India" and the hot-off-the-presses Strategic Plan of the U.S. Climate Change Technology Program.

Except, I have to admit, I'm going to cheat. I read all 40 pages of Chapter 5 of "Dancing With Giants," with some care poring over its hardheaded analysis of the likely energy demand scenarios in China and India between now and 2050, their impact on global energy prices, domestic pollution, and climate change, and potential strategies for mitigating that impact. But I only read the first section of the introduction of the 243-page Strategic Plan before deciding that it was a vile piece of whitewashing dreck that avoids requiring the U.S. government to make any hard choices or take any real action to deal with climate change. Not worth the bandwidth required to download its 15 megabytes.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm a huge fan of new technology and I hope that the U.S. funnels billions of dollars into researching all the different programs the plan outlines as having potential for reducing emissions in the future. (Although I'm not at all sure what to think about the way the plan touts its "organization" of $3 billion of climate change research -- does that mean no new spending is being suggested?) And I suppose we should be thankful that if the report proves anything, it is that the evidence of human responsibility for climate change is now so overwhelming that even the Bush administration has been forced to acknowledge it. But touting Bush's presidential "leadership" on this issue is stomach-turning. And announcing a "plan" that relies on voluntary emissions reduction by the same energy corporations that are busy spending millions of dollars in public relations campaigns that attempt to obfuscate climate change science is beyond insulting.

Enough. The enviro-blogosphere, which will no doubt take the time to shred this report in detail, will be along shortly and we'll all have lots of laughs. Meanwhile, back to China and India.

The negative consequences of the energy consumption required by economic growth in China and India are not limited to greenhouse gas emissions. Sulfur dioxide and soot emissions, which combine to cause acid rain, are already affecting agricultural production. "Studies in India show decrease in mean wheat yield of 13 to 50 percent within 10 kilometers of thermal power stations of capacity 500 to 2000 megawatts respectively," writes Zmarak Shalizi. "Similar studies in China have concluded that the deteriorating air quality has reduced optimal yield by 5-30 percent for about 70 percent of the crops grown there ... Air pollution [in 2003], is estimated to have led to over 427,000 excess deaths and 300,000 cases of chronic bronchitis in 660 Chinese cities in that year. In the case of India, Cohen et al. (2004) report an estimate of 107,000 excess deaths in 2000."

If one projects that China and India will continue growing for the next 40 years, albeit not quite as fast as over the last 20, the implications for the local and global environment are severe. The question is what to do about it: continue on with business as usual, or aggressively pursue a two-pronged plan of increasing energy efficiency and moving to alternative sources of energy. The problem, naturally, is that implementing such a plan will be expensive.

"From a country perspective, the higher initial cost of investment of alternatives to fossil fuels is a concern and therefore the standard response is to delay adopting cutting edge technologies till additional technological innovations reduce their costs to avoid adversely affecting GDP growth rates."

That, in a nutshell, viewed most charitably, is the U.S. strategy.

But Shalizi then notes that "Delaying the implementation of policies will result in higher investment requirements in the future to reach a target emissions level by a specified period. These higher costs will represent a lower share of a larger GDP given the growth in the economy in the interim. However, the environmental benefits of these policies will show up later and never quite fully catch up with the benefits generated by earlier implementation of policies. Thus both the costs of investment and the benefits of emissions reduction are shifted into the future. As a result, the cumulative 'financial cost reducing' benefit of delaying investments do not offset the increased cumulative emissions cost associated with prolonged reliance on fossil fuels."

I read this to mean that if your goal is to cut emissions by a certain date, the earlier you start, the cheaper it will be. You may knock a few percentage points off your GDP growth in the meantime, but hey, what's that compared to saving hundreds of thousands of lives, keeping agricultural land fertile, and preventing devastating changes in the world's climate?

Now excuse me while I scrape my hard drive clean of the U.S. Climate Change Technology Strategic Plan.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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