The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four reasons why the fight against climate change is likely to fail

(REUTERS/Fred Prouser)

Democrats in the Senate stayed up all night talking about the perils of climate change. But while there's hope that technology, changing consumer and business practices or new policies could finally turn the tide and slow or reverse climate change, there are also good reasons to think those efforts will fail.

  1. There isn’t enough research and development into ways of generating energy without emitting carbon dioxide. “The U.S. energy sector invests only 0.23 percent of its revenue in research and development, and federal R&D spending is only half of what it was in 1980,” says a new paper by non-profit centrist policy group Third Way.
  2. The price of fossil fuels doesn’t include the cost of environmental damage and climate change. Legislation, meanwhile, isn’t doing the trick when it comes to increasing the price. A cap and trade program is complicated, virtually impossible politically, and not working all that well in Europe. A carbon tax – even a small gasoline tax – won't get adopted by Congress.
  3. Many countries still subsidize fossil fuels, including those in the Middle East where consumption is growing fastest. The International Monetary Fund puts the annual cost at $1.9 trillion (on a post-tax basis).
  4. China is determined to increase living standards with more cars, more power plants, and more everything. In 2012, the average Chinese emits 6.2 metric tons a year of carbon dioxide versus 17.6 metric tons for the average American. Closing even one-third of that gap (even with more energy efficient economy) will generate a lot more emissions.

The Global Energy Initiative, a non-profit group devoted to promoting clean energy and slowing climate change, asked a handful of economists – liberal and conservative -- for their views on what to do about climate change and the replies are somewhat gloomy.

Former top Obama economic policy adviser and former Harvard University president Larry Summers lists three items: eliminate energy subsidies, more funding for basic energy research, and carbon taxes. “As a practical matter my guess is the world will produce non fossil fuel power in the next 25 years at today s fossil fuel prices or it will fail with respect to global climate change,” he says.

The iconoclastic Bjorn Lomberg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School says: “The only way to move towards a long-term reduction in emissions is if green energy becomes much cheaper.” He supports suggestions to increase research and development 10-fold to $100 billion a year globally.

Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University said: “The most likely scenario is that we will find out just how bad the climate change problem is slated to be.”