Robert Stavins is hopeful that the coming UN meeting in NY on climate change will stimulate more action on climate change. However, he is realistic, and somewhat pessimistic, about the prospects for taking the actions which are required. He describes the magnitude of the problem in this article, and he examines the economic and political obstacles to the level of change that is required.
Stavins is more pessimistic than Paul Krugman was in an article that I recently posted. Krugman wants to believe that we can continue to grow the global economy at our current rate and also reduce the threats from climate change. Stavins is expert on climate change and Krugman is not. He provides us with a detailed analysis of what must happen to carbon emissions in order to limit the growth in temperature that is essential. This cannot be done without limiting the growth rate. This is particularly true in countries like China which has passed the US in carbon emissions. China is producing a coal fired power plant every 10 days to meet the power requirements of its growing industrial economy. Chinese officials are aware of the problems that this is having on air quality and it hopes to correct its pollution problems. On the other hand, China wants to provide its citizens with the standard of living enjoyed today by rich nations.
The good news is that carbon emissions in the US and in Europe have grown more slowly than GDP in recent years. If China and the US could take the leadership on climate change we might be able to prevent the catastrophe that Stavins describes. We might be able to deal with economic problems that are required but the political obstacles will not be easy to overcome. President Obama has been forced to use the EPA to impose some of the changes that will reduce carbon emissions. He has not been able to get Congress to take the climate change issue seriously. That is not likely to change prior to some catastrophic event which might alter the politics. Politicians like to provide benefits to the current generation that will paid for by future generations. They are less comfortable with imposing costs on the current generation to provide benefits to future generations.