Friday, February 8, 2008

Time for America to take the lead!

Americans in particular — the world's most promiscuous emitters of greenhouse gases and the ones best placed to do something about it — can set an example. A good start would be to remove the government subsidies for fossil fuels, which are huge, mostly hidden, and economically unsound. Another sensible step would be to tax carbon emissions, including gradually raising the tax on gasoline by a dollar or so (comparable to what nearly all other industrial nations pay, and compensated by lowering other taxes). That would also help to cover the actual costs of roads, traffic congestion, accident injuries and illness due to smog. Other economically beneficial policies could improve fuel efficiency in many areas, protect forests, and so forth.
Most important of all, regulation and "price signals" will stimulate development of technologies and practices that can advance human welfare with far lower greenhouse gas emission. The control of CFCs, for example, turned out to be far easier and cheaper than the regulated industries feared.
Without delay, nations should join — as nearly all but the United States have done — in working out systems for applying standards on the international scale, which is where climate operates. Indeed most nations have already joined in this process, and disdain the United States for standing aside when it should be the natural leader.
Like many threats, global warming calls for greater government activity, and that rightly worries people. But in the 21st century the alternative to government action is not individual liberty: it is corporate power. And the role of large corporations in this story until very recently has been negative, a tale of self-interested obfuscation and short-sighted delay. The atmosphere is a classic case of a "commons" — like the old shared English meadows, where any given individual could only gain by adding more of his own cows, although everyone lost from the overgrazing. In such cases only public rules can protect the public interest.
The Discovery of Global Warming

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