The Cost-Free Global Catastrophe

Posted: Mar 23, 2007 12:00 AM

Maybe the next Al Gore film should be called "How to Profit From the Coming Global Meltdown." The former vice president told Congress during his star-turn there that, in the course of combating global warming, we can "improve our economy's productivity and performance."

It is a common argument among advocates of greenhouse-gas restrictions and clean-technology subsidies that these measures will be an economic boon. When John Edwards unveiled his plan to "halt global warming," he promised to create a million new jobs as part of "a new energy economy." If global warming can be stopped while adding jobs to the economy — what are we waiting for? We can have all the economic growth we want and save the planet too.

As it happens, serious efforts to combat global warming in the U.S. will create new jobs, but most of them probably will be in China and India. It was just four years ago that Democrats were attacking "out-sourcing." Now they are willing to contemplate measures that would encourage it in the cause of reduced American carbon emissions.

In recent congressional testimony, economist David Montgomery of the consulting firm Charles Rivers Associates explained how restrictions on greenhouse gases would work in the real world. They would increase the energy costs of U.S. manufacturers and thus make them less competitive against manufacturers in India and China, developing countries that are unburdened by guilty consciences about their emissions. Investment in both those countries would tend to increase.

"Emissions in the United States will fall, especially as our share of energy-intensive industries shrinks," Montgomery explains, "but they will grow even faster in China as factories rise there that would otherwise have been built here." This is bad news for the environment, since China is so much less energy-efficient than the U.S. A dollar's worth of output in China increases greenhouse gases by twice as much as a dollar's worth of output here.

This dynamic is part of the reason that it is impossible for the developing world to "halt" global warming on its own. China will soon pass the U.S. in emissions. And if its industry becomes dependent on a competitive advantage from not imposing the sort of restrictions Democrats are talking about here, it will become even less likely to agree to them. Indeed, the Kyoto treaty functions as if it were hatched in an evil conspiracy between the Beijing and New Delhi Chambers of Commerce — we get cleaner and poorer, they get dirtier and richer.

And we inevitably will get poorer at the margins. Montgomery describes the economic effect of greenhouse-gas suppression: "The need to adopt more costly methods of electricity generation, to invest in producing more expensive, low-carbon fuels and to undertake more intensive energy-conservation measures diverts resources that would otherwise be available to produce the goods and services that make up GDP."

Of course, certain parts of the economy might thrive that wouldn't otherwise, those involved in, say, ethanol or wind production. Democrats point to them and say, "Hurrah — new jobs!" But they are engaged in a classic instance of the "broken-window fallacy," as first explained by economist Frederic Bastiat. That is the assumption that breaking a window helps the economy because it creates work for a glazier. Actually it makes the economy poorer by one window. Carbon restrictions will act in the same way.

Given the planetary calamity we are said to be facing, Democrats shouldn't be promising a free lunch, but one, two many Kyotos. The treaty would have to be multiplied 30 times over to achieve the kind of emissions reductions that climate-alarmists deem necessary. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards criticize President Bush for telling people to go shopping after 9/11. But with the fate of the Earth supposedly in the balance, Democrats essentially are telling people that they can stop global warming even as we shop and grow as much as we like.

Can't we have a little straight talk with our environmental sanctimony?