Global Warming and the Which Way Is Up Problem in Economics

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Wednesday, 02 July 2014 04:18

It is painful to read Eduardo Porter's column on the prospects for slowing global warming and China's greenhouse gas emissions. It's not that Porter got anything in particular wrong; he is presenting standard projections that are the basis for international negotiations. Rather it is the framing of the trade-offs that is painful.

Porter poses the question of the extent to which China should be willing to slow its economic growth to curb its greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to rich countries like the United States bearing more of the burden. The reason this is painful is that most folks might recall that our major economic problem at the moment is secular stagnation. 

In case people forgot, this is a problem of inadequate demand. The story is that we don't have enough demand for goods and services to keep our workforce fully employed. As a result we have tens of millions who are unemployed, underemployed, or who have given up looking for work altogether. This is not just a U.S. problem but one that afflicts much of the world.

Okay, now bring in the problem of global warming. Isn't it horrible that we face this immense environmental problem at the same time that our economies are suffering from this horrible problem of secular stagnation? Arghhhhhh!

The problem of global warming is one that needs lot of work. We need people to retrofit our buildings to make them more energy efficient, to put up solar panels and wind turbines to get clean energy. How about paying people to drive free buses so that commuters have more incentive to leave their cars at home? We need to build smart grids to minimize energy wastage. The list is really long.

This issue comes up very directly in terms of our economic relations with China. Our big complaint (at least publicly) is that China is deliberately keeping down the value of its currency against the dollar in order to export more to the United States. That's a too little demand story again. But, we also want them to spend more on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That's a perfect way to address the too little demand story.

Instead of subsidizing its exports to the United States (the effect of China's present trade policy), China could redirect these resources to subsidizing its installation of solar panels. Everyone stays fully employed and we get fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

These transitions are not all simple and easy, but the basic point is that two problems fit together perfectly. The enormous spending associated with World War II was the cure for our last depression. No one in their right mind would want to see another catastrophic war, but a massive deployment of resources to curb greenhouse gas emissions worldwide would serve the same purpose.

Come on folks, this really isn't hard.