Explaining Inaction on Global Warming

| Fri May 26, 2006 6:25 PM EDT

Here's a thought as to why Congress does—and will continue to do—nothing about trying to avert catastrophic global warming:

Cass Sunstein, a law professor and political scientist at the University of Chicago, raises the provocative question of why America has responded in such diametrically different fashion to terrorism (panic) and global warming (postponement).

In a paper released this month by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, Sunstein notes that presidents and legislators are willing to squander money to avoid being blamed for something.

"Every politician has a strong incentive to take steps to prevent terrorist attacks," Sunstein writes. "If such an attack occurs 'on his watch,' the likelihood of political reprisal is high ... By contrast, it is far less likely that there will be a climate change 'incident' on the watch of, or easily attributable to, any current politician." Except… except… politicians in other countries, particularly in Europe, face the same dilemma and they all take global warming fairly seriously. Why is that? Perhaps it's true that the structure of our political system is a reason why Congress does absolutely nothing about climate change, but the more immediate problem is the particular politicians in charge right now—namely, conservative ideologues bought and paid for by business groups that are allergic to any and all environmental regulations. Not that Democrats are much better, mind you. It's just silly to overlook the foremost obstacle to any sort of sensible climate change policy.

At any rate, Paul Krugman had an interesting column today noting that the amount of sacrifice involved in averting global warming wouldn't be huge, according to the "broad consensus" among economists. At worst, reducing carbon emissions to sustainable levels would reduce GDP growth by two-tenths of a percentage point over the next twenty years. That's a lot of money, but hardly crippling, and there would still be a lot of economic growth to spare. And my hunch is that the actual "pain" involved would be much less severe. Anti-regulatory types have always predicted that this or that environmental law would destroy industries and lead to mass unemployment and make everyone poorer and unhappier. They've usually, if not always, been wrong.