14 Jul 2008

An Ounce of Prevention...

...is worth a pound of cure. -- Ben Franklin

In the comments to this post, Bob says
To enact the carbon tax is to assume that the least-cost solution to the externality is to cut back on emissions.

[snip]

You might be right that the least-cost way to fight climate change is to reduce carbon emissions, but if you happen to be wrong...
I didn't immediately realize that Bob was not arguing about taxes. Instead, it seems that he is arguing that the best policy response to global warming, etc. is not to cut back on emissions but to try to reduce the impacts of emissions.

Let's go through the logic of this perspective:
  1. Economic activity can lead to carbon emissions. The activity is good, but the emissions are not.
  2. Cutting emissions means cutting economic activity, which impacts our way of life, and that is bad.
  3. Instead of cutting emissions, we should use the wealth generated from economic activity to overcome the adverse impacts of global warming.
  4. In other words, if we get rich fast enough, our overall situation will improve, even as we damage the planet.
I have several responses:
  1. I think that prevention is better than adaption/mitigation, e.g., it's easier to prevent than clean up an oil spill.
  2. We don't know the impacts of global warming, so perhaps it's better to prevent it (the precautionary principle).
  3. We can practice both prevention and adaption. There's no need to choose between them.
  4. We (rich people) will be able to adapt because we have wealth and power, but the effects of global warming are much broader. What about poor people in developing countries (e.g., Bangladesh) who cannot adapt? What about flora and fauna that will suffer greater damage if we shift our emphasis from prevention to mitigation? It's distinctly possible that adverse impacts on these populations will lead to far worse consequences for us. We share one world, after all.
Bottom Line: We should respect and act on Franklin's wisdom: Preventing climate change is better than watching it happen and then hoping we can deal with it.