Week of March 15, 2020
The Wealth Dynamics of Climate Change
Henceforth, the word “coronavirus” will appear in this draft of the newsletter once. The recent spread of coronavirus has launched (and will continue to do so) a series of natural experiments on the national level pertaining to the environmental impact of economic paralysis. China’s lockdown procedures, for example, reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent—200 million tons—up to March 1, and air pollution declined to negligible amounts (albeit by the PRC’s horrendous standards) over the Northeast. Other than confirming the rather obvious fact that inactive economies are environmentally friendly, however, this sudden shift highlights a subtler idea: that rich, economically sophisticated nations belch out most of the CO2. Yes, China and India rank close to the United States in aggregate (they are, after all, quite big), but on a per capita basis, the top eight emitters include America, Canada, South Korea, Japan, and Germany. These, obviously, epitomize the “first-world, high-tech, developed economy” archetype, enjoying higher income levels than the major total polluters.
In short, the key question is whether preventing people from participating in the global economy—halting luxury purchases, stifling travel, ending commutes—can make a lasting dent in their contributions to climate change. The linked article above suggests otherwise, arguing compellingly that relief efforts in the wake of the ensuing financial disaster will (as with responses to most crises) discard eco-friendliness for unchecked stimulus. Climatically, events could, and probably will, take a severe turn for the worse in the medium term. In a normative sense, however, it’s clear that moderating our behavior would significant ameliorative effect on our destruction of global ecosystems. So far, the hypothesis that development would push countries over the hump into innovation-driven, choice-aided decarbonization has failed pathetically, merely reinforcing the status quo with a mythology of populism and techno-salvationism. The rise of China has created a monster, not an ally. Ironically, the viral spasm of trade and industry may do more to combat emissions growth than will Silicon Valley, at least in the near future.