Sunday, March 25, 2007

Another Donlan Miss (over at Barrons)

Here is the text of my recent letter-to-the-editor at Barron's [subscription/registration required] countering Mr Thomas G. Donlan's editorial 3/26/07 "A Plea for the Planet's People".

Donlan should crawl back under his fossil fuel soaked rock. Donlan believes that a climate crisis is no more than an academic possibility, given current trends rather than a near certain reality. He posits that “a moralist still would have to compare the cost of the solutions with the benefits, and understand the costs and benefits of doing nothing as well.” The rest of the world, minus a few oil executives and possibly some Detroit car makers, has decided that action needs to be taken to prevent a global climate crisis. The question that remains is what actions to take and when. Gore offered some interesting possibilities in his testimony before congress.

Donlan further believes we have to make a false choice between fixing the planet or growing the economy. As if the economy will continue to grow if the planet falls apart. The problem that exists today is that our fossil fuel based economy only counts the benefits of fossil fuels and none of the costs (aside from the purely economic cost of extraction). Much as an economy based on slave labor cannot be considered a true economy, since obvious economic costs related to labor inputs are not counted, so an economy that ignores the environmental cost of burning its (diminishing) fossil fuel resources is similarly a false economy. What is particularly pernicious in this case is that there are many (environmentally sound) energy alternatives that will become economically viable, once we count the environmental costs of fossil fuels. We are in effect massively subsidizing the fossil fuel sources and then complaining that so long as we ignore the subsidy, no other source is economically viable. Some leadership is required to change our national (and global) economic accounting standards to reflect the reality of global warming. I don’t dispute that questions about how fast changes must be implemented to avert what level of climate risk exist…but certainty will only arrive after the fact in cases such as this.

“Would it be more immoral to allow millions of people living on the river deltas from Louisiana to Bangladesh to be flooded out, or to hold back the industrial development of Asia and Africa and condemn other billions to lives of great poverty?”

As if we can only, or ought only, to do one or the other…obviously we must work to save both groups. What Donlan cannot see because he believes that “wind and solar…aren’t up to it”, is that these very distributed energy technologies (along with other alternatives being developed—geothermal, wave power etc) will allow these developing countries to leapfrog our fossil fuel energy based economy. In nearly every field of human endeavor Donlan believes in the power of private enterprise and creativity to produce value by increasing efficiency…every field except energy apparently.


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