Climate despair: get on yer bike

Old BicycleOn June 6 I gave you an anniversary snark against Ezra Klein’s black take  on the prospects for our climate. The BrE phrase attributed to Norman Tebbit in the blog headline is just another snark. (Photo credit It’s only fair to back them with an actual argument.

Joe Romm did a good point-by-point rejoinder to Klein. He left out two things though.

8. Washington is not the United States.
9. The United States is not the world.

If the question were “what are our chances of saving the climate if it depends on the policies of the US government?” I’d have to agree with Ezra: they are terrible. The combination of a rickety museum piece of a Constitution designed to make state action difficult, a Republican Party rejecting science entirely, and a reactionary Supreme Court determined to protect plutocracy against the riffraff, makes the prospects for an adequate response nil in the next two years and dim after that. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Mephistopheles collecting his sureties from Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, followed by a Democratic tidal wave in 2016 on a Danish carbon programme, but it’s remote.

Washington though does not determine events in the United States or the world.

Washington is not the United States

The carbon threat is quite unlike that of a nuclear holocaust under which some of us grew up. That was a matter of state, which ordinary citizens in the West could only influence a little through the ballot-box, and not at all in the USSR or China. Carbon emissions are the result of the way our entire economies get and use energy. Every human being in the world contributes to the problem and can contribute to the solution. Actions available to consumers in the USA include installing solar panels, buying an electric vehicle, offsetting flights, building a passive house or redoing an existing one, and buying Tebbit’s bicycle. These do not have trivial impacts. The numerous subset of the population that work as managers and entrepreneurs can also cut the emissions from the production process, for instance by sourcing electricity and food sustainably and investing in conservation. Both processes are clearly happening, if not yet on the truly massive scale required.

The share of the economy that is directly administered by the federal government – basically the military – is only 6-7%. Add as much again for state and local spending on schools, police and prisons. The number can go up by a similar chunk in countries with public-service medicine. The rest is more or less elaborate and conditional transfers to autonomous agents: pensioners, hospitals, universities, farmers, families on welfare, etc.

The government can influence what everybody else does by sticks (commands and threats), carrots (money) and nudges (praise, shame and framing). Influence, not control. What people do in the end depends on policy, but also on market conditions and culture. In federal or quasi-federal states like the USA, there is extra room for local and regional initiative, as in California. Predicting the course of US carbon emissions requires you to take a very wide view – so wide that the forecast becomes very uncertain, and makes room for hope as well as gloom.

Factors for hope within the USA include:

  • the dramatic falls underlined by Romm in the price of solar and wind energy, driving their rapid growth, and the solid expectation of future cost reductions;
  • progress in the technologies of electric vehicles, allowing decarbonisation of much transport, and of electrical controls of all sorts, allowing large gains in efficiency;
  • the solid majorities in public opinion in favour of renewable energy and energy conservation.

The latter mathematically must extend to a good number of Republican voters who nominally do not accept climate change. (One can only speculate why: cognitive dissonance – the question whether global warming is real is parsed as “are you a liberal environmentalist?” and replied to according to tribal loyalty, but the question on renewables is answered pragmatically; or perhaps Tea Party denialists support renewables on non-climate grounds of energy independence, personal and community self-sufficiency, air pollution, aesthetics, fashion, or cost.) At all events, there’s widespread support for renewable energy even in Republican strongholds. This is already evident in support for transition policies at municipal and state level. Democratic California and New York are very large economies. Republican Arizona and Iowa are smaller, but not to be sneezed at.

Wide support also makes a further shift in norms and frames entirely possible. GM has withdrawn the civilian Hummer from the market. Look what has happened in the last few years to smoking, gay marriage, and incarceration rates. Without going the full Gladwell, it is plausible that there will be positive feedbacks and tipping points in both cultural norms and financial valuations over carbon. The fossil fuel interests fighting with increasing desperation against support for renewable energy and emissions controls know what they are risking: a reassessment by the market and society of the prospects and social license of their businesses, and being penned into an ostracised high-risk ghetto.

At the same time, the positive feedbacks work in favour of the growing low-carbon businesses: they attract more and cheaper finance, gain economies of scale, acquire more visibility and political leverage. Electric vehicles gain from pure network effects. At present the upstart lobbies are weaker than those of the ancien régime, but they have shown they can win political fights. The smart money is moving their way, not just in Omaha.

The United States is not the world

The USA is a large, rich, powerful and heavily polluting country. It has 4% of the world’s population, 19% of its GDP (PPP), and spews 17% of its carbon emissions. So it’s a major player on four grounds. But not a hegemon; in this field, rather a tail-end Charlie.

It would be nice if (following my fantasy of the HRC clean sweep in 2016 on Bill McKibben’s carbon programme) the USA were to present,
Queen litter at the latest incarnation of the UN climate change travelling circus, a terrific plan for the world to go zero carbon by 2045. Wild applause, motion carried by acclamation, Al Gore as chief US delegate carried shoulder-high to the press conference. This isn’t going to happen. But it doesn’t need to. US “leadership” à la Independence Day is for Hollywood not real life.

The whole premise of these laborious negotiations is that action on climate change presents a huge free-rider problem. Without assurances that others will join in, any country acting independently will incur large costs with a low probability of benefit. So you need a huge, universal and binding cap-and trade scheme. Since the basis of Westphalia-era international law is that all states are equal, and each has a veto on new global pacts, the chances of getting any sort of binding agreement acceptable to everybody are tiny and the chances of that agreement representing an adequate policy response tend to zero.

But that assumption is wrong. Since the process started, the cost-benefit equation has been transformed. The benefits of global action (that is, the costs of global inaction) to each country keep rising. The net estimated costs of national action (a shift to zero-carbon energy) keep falling, and are now close to zero or negative. The IPCC’s latest estimate of “0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates” is within the margin of error and best interpreted as “nothing as near as dammit”.

It is becoming sensible for many countries to go sustainable whatever the others do: the policy is cheap, and though the effect on the global climate trajectory and its damage to national interests is slight, it’s worth having. There is no payoff to moving second rather than starting now, and a chance of grabbing lucrative markets and green cred. Don’t laugh at this. Rich, autocratic and defenceless Qatar is ploughing millions into green initiatives, like its fellow-sheikdom Abu Dhabi. These must have a better reputational payoff than the tainted World Cup that Qatar also bought.

The number of countries with policies for renewable energy has risen to 138 – practically everybody. They include Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, these plans and policies vary widely in ambition and seriousness. But even a weak policy sends a signal and creates a lobby to expand it. Overt denialism in government is an Anglo-Saxon eccentricity, AFAICT restricted to the USA, Australia, and Canada, though hypocrites and procrastinators are everywhere.

There remains a huge national interest in getting other countries, especially the big polluters, to follow suit. The UN jamborees are becoming fora in which many small countries, led by climate heroes such as Costa Rica and Bhutan and desperate atolls facing extinction, can embarrass the big polluters as pressure into speeding up their national policies. This reputational effect is small but steady and constructive, and is quite independent of the traditional diplomatic metric of agreement or not on another empty declaration or “action plan”.

Which brings us to China, the world’s biggest carbon polluter (26%). Joe Romm surely exaggerated the impact on Chinese policy of Obama’s EPA regulation announcement. The senior Chinese official who suggested soon afterwards that a carbon cap for the Chinese economy was imminent was obliged to walk back his statement as a “personal view”. But he wasn’t disowned. There’s clearly a policy argument going on at the top of the Chinese leadership, with a faction for boldness and a faction for caution. The bold faction’s strongest argument is the appalling air pollution from burning gigatons of coal. Since this represents a real and growing threat to the régime’s survival, and as the net costs of the energy transition keep falling, the bold faction is bound to win sooner rather than later. The international respect this would garner is a useful secondary payoff. US policy can help the process along a little.

Slytherin scarf and tie

Slytherin scarf and tie

These are just arguments for hope, not proofs. Despair has a strong case too. But only house members ever root for the Slytherin team.


  1. TheFirstDano says


    Again, I think we can do this.

    All we have to do is radically cut the birth rate today. Then consume less. Think more about the consequences of our actions. Countries must suddenly – today – put aside centuries of animosity and work together. Capitalism must retreat to a degree that allows more societal cooperation.

    Easy peasy!

  2. J_Michael_Neal says


    Put simply, I think you're living in a complete fantasy. Without collective action, individual countries will be operating on the margins and a critical mass won't ever be achieved.

    • JamesWimberley says


      Collective action, yes. But collective action in the form of a mega-Kyoto multilateral convention, no. A much less difficult herd migration in the same direction will do it – and 138 renewable energy plans is already the start of a herd movement.

      • J_Michael_Neal says


        I'm pretty sure that your form of collective action will progress and still end up far short of what is needed. Even if we assume the things you do about net costs, there are too many vested interests in too many places.

        • JamesWimberley says


          Overcoming vested interests is always a fight, but often a winnable one. In the UK, see the abolition of the slave trade, the end of the Corn Laws, and the successive stages of parliamentary reform. In the USA, antitrust, the New Deal, and the Great Society. The winners (apart from the slave trade case) had interests as well. Watch how this is playing out on solar net metering in the USA. The proposition that the rich can always buy stasis and stop change they don't like is historically wrong. "Comes silent, flooding in, the main."

          It's not me "assuming" things about net costs. You are challenging the IPCC and the IEA, that is the new mainstream analysis. It's up to you to show them wrong.

  3. NCGatSmFcts says


    Yes. I think there's hope. And I think sometimes the Chinese government can be very smart (though I don't always agree of course — like this new thing where they want to shove everyone into the cities …) I hope this will be one of the times. When they make up their mind to do something…

    I think prayer and meditation can be a piece of this too. Look how much we waste with all the wars and fighting. Getting along, sharing, and prioritizing are going to have to become a habit, at least some of the time.

  4. says


    James, you write: "The net estimated costs of national action (a shift to zero-carbon energy) keep falling, and are now close to zero or negative." That seems the key claim for any case that this is no longer a real free-rider problem.

    While I'll buy that the net estimated costs of shifting new daytime power plants from some fossil fuels to solar are now close to zero, I'm still not sure that the kind of always-on power generation needed to ramp up industrial production in places like India and China—with the transmission systems to match—is in the same category. (Have we solved the large-scale power storage problem at very low cost? Not that I've heard.) Nor have electric vehicles fallen to the cost of the truly cheap cars popular in developing countries. Shouldn't those things be what worry us? Can we be sure that the cost calculation for those things is shifting so quickly?

    This is not to criticize your post as a whole. If there is any prospect for this becoming something other than a gigantic free-rider problem, it's certainly a very, very important point to make and repeat. Because that does indeed sound like the whole ballgame.

    • JamesWimberley says


      Andrew: I assumed the IPCC team know what they are doing.

      Numerous scenarios for 100% renewables have been made for Germany, Australia, and the USA, even China. They include grid integration costs – plus, extra cost of storage or despatchable backup (geothermal, CSP, hydro, biomass); minus, lower transmission infrastructure from distributed solar. BTW, it’s a myth spread by the fossil and nuclear lobbies that you need full capacity 24/7. A post-industrial economy shuts down at night, and few factories run three shifts. “Baseload” is, as John Quiggin points out, largely an artefact of the inflexible 24-hour generating plants we inherit. (I’ve yet to see a breakdown of California’s 20GW demand in the small hours; much of it is I guess simply waste.) AEMO calculated that Australia would need 6 hours storage using CSP+hot salt in the Outback as the main despatchable. Fraunhofer estimated the midwinter backup requirement for Germany at a couple of weeks, for times when there’s neither wind nor sun. These are quite large numbers. But the problem only gets expensive for the last 10% or so; if we cheat and fill the limited gaps with the gas capacity we already have, the problem is far more manageable, and we have 15 years to solve it.

      On the other side, you have to take into account the rising costs of fossil fuels – that’s at market prices, absent a carbon tax. The latest IEA Energy Perspectives concludes that decarbonising saves money – a staggering $71 trn to 2050. My scenario isn’t a hippie fringe one.