N.Y. Times: Rich, fat Americans will save the world

Just in time for Earth Day, John Tierney explains why we shouldn't bother to do anything about global warming. He's wrong.

Published April 21, 2009 7:56PM (EDT)

How fun! Just in time for Earth Day, the New York Times' John Tierney, who has long specialized in contrarian takes on issues most scientists think settled, tells us we don't need to worry about the necessity to take action against global warming. Even better, we don't need to do anything at all.

1. There will be no green revolution in energy or anything else. No leader or law or treaty will radically change the energy sources for people and industries in the United States or other countries. No recession or depression will make a lasting change in consumers' passions to use energy, make money and buy new technology -- and that, believe it or not, is good news, because...

2. The richer everyone gets, the greener the planet will be in the long run.

Tierney bases his prediction on the prophecies of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), which, as I wrote a few years back, "holds that there is a bell-shaped, 'inverted U' curve describing the relationship between a society's economic growth and the problem of environmental degradation. Simply put, at early stages of growth, environmental degradation gets worse, but as citizens get richer, things start to get better."

There's just one problem. While the EKC appears to hold true for pollutants that are obvious and repugnant to increasingly affluent people -- dirty water, particulate matter in the air, etc. -- the evidence is mixed when it comes to things that are harder to see or smell, such as a greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, as UCLA economist Matthew Kahn, who has specialized in researching exactly this issue, notes, while Tierney is correct to observe that American per-capita carbon dioxide emissions have stayed flat for a couple of decades, overall, American energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, largely due to population growth.

So what you really see when you chart economic growth vs. greenhouse gas emissions, Kahn told me via the phone, isn't the dramatic inverse U that defines the classic EKC, but rather just a flattening of the curve that ends up leaving you at a very high plateau.

Greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of GNP are falling," says Kahn, "but they are not falling fast enough to offset overall greenhouse gas growth."

Tierney, said Kahn, is engaging in a kind of technological optimism that says we "can still stay fat and keep driving our Hummers" without having to take any action in creating market incentives to reduce carbon emissions. But since what we need to do is reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we are producing, the fact that the overall amount of CO2 in the atmosphere generated by one of the richest countries in the world is still rising shouldn't give us much confidence that the EKC will save us, without our having to do anything to nudge it along.

Finally, as a Californian, I have to question the assertion that the flat growth of per-capita American energy consumption is something that just happened naturally as the U.S. economy grew. The truth is that around 1972, Californian per-capita energy consumption flattened out dramatically, while per-capita energy consumption for the rest of America continued to grow merrily along. Kahn pointed me to a chart on Page 3 of a July 2008 paper titled "Deconstructing the 'Rosenfeld Curve,'" which demonstrates the dramatic disparity with stunning clarity.

The authors of the paper claim that 23 percent of the disparity between California per-capita energy consumption and the rest of the country is due to Californian government energy policy -- which includes the strictest and earliest energy efficiency requirements for major appliances in the United States. Californian regulators will no doubt claim a higher percentage, but whatever the final number is, I think it's pretty clear that the divergence wasn't an accident, and wasn't just a product of economic growth. At least partially, it is a result of policy.

And if we're going to get ourselves out of the mess that a couple of hundred years of global economic growth have created, we are likely to need more policy, not less.

"We need growth and market incentives for reducing carbon emissions," said Kahn, "to encourage the venture capitalists to make big bets on new technologies."

By Andrew Leonard

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

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