Tierney on Using Energy, Getting Rich, and Saving the Planet

John Tierney argues that:

1. There will be no green revolution in energy or anything else. No leader or law or treaty will radically change the energy sources for people and industries in the United States or other countries. No recession or depression will make a lasting change in consumers' passions to use energy, make money and buy new technology — and that, believe it or not, is good news, because...

2. The richer everyone gets, the greener the planet will be in the long run.

How could this be? Tierney explains:

By the 1990s, researchers realized that graphs of environmental impact didn't produce a simple upward-sloping line as countries got richer. The line more often rose, flattened out and then reversed so that it sloped downward, forming the shape of a dome or an inverted U — what's called a Kuznets curve.

In dozens of studies, researchers identified Kuznets curves for a variety of environmental problems. There are exceptions to the trend, especially in countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but in general, richer is eventually greener. As incomes go up, people often focus first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants like sulfur dioxide.

Tierney makes two big mistakes. First, the environmental Kuznets curves (which are themselves somewhat controversial) depend on legal institutions to translate people's preferences into outcomes (as Tierney briefly acknowledges). As I get richer, I am willing to pay more for clean air. But I can't buy clean air at the store. I have to lobby my legislator for regulation that increases the price of goods that I buy.

This makes good sense if I live in a city with factories that pollute the air and can be regulated. But if the problem is flooding caused by greenhouse gas emissions, I can't just lobby my legislature to fix the problem. If my city or state or national government increases the costs of fossil fuels, while the rest of the world does nothing, the effect on climate change will be virtually nil. I have to lobby my government to enter treaties with other governments. But if Tierney is right that "no leader or law or treaty will radically change the energy sources for people and industries in the United States or other countries," then I am wasting my time trying to lobby my government. I'll be richer but more miserable because I can't do anything about climate change—and over the long term I'll not even be richer in monetary terms, as my taxes rise so that the government can afford sea walls and the like.

What Tierney misses is that the Kuznets curves assume the government doing something at the behest of citizens. He talks as though richer people will independently consume less as they become richer, but there is absolutely no evidence of that!

Second, there is no particular reason to think that the Kuznets curves (even if there is one for carbon, and it is not clear there is) will level off in all countries in time to save us from the worst consequences of climate change. Indeed, if Tierney is right that the Kuznet curve peaks at when a country's income reaches $30,000 per capita, then we are in deep trouble. China's per capita income is around $6,000 and it is the biggest emitter in the world. Even with relatively optimistic assumptions, we will be in trouble unless carbon emissions from the energy sector has been reduced to zero or close to it by, say, 2050 (based on figures taken from the Stern Review). (Agriculture and land use, which are harder to control, would continue to account for significant increases in greenhouse gases, and of course there is the large stock of carbon already in the atmosphere.) Even if the United States and other rich countries have in fact reduced their energy-related emissions to zero by that time, on Tierney's account China, India, Indonesia and other huge industrializing or industrialized countries will be belching out vast quantities of the stuff, far more than is being emitted today, and with disastrous consequences if mainstream climate models are correct.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Is Richer Greener?
  2. Is Richer Greener? A Comment on Posner on Tierney:
  3. Tierney on Using Energy, Getting Rich, and Saving the Planet