The real questions behind global warming

The key issue is what we can expect from China and India.  As I understand the evidence, if China and India continue to grow, the United States cannot succeed in much limiting global warming on its own.  Let us assume, somewhat dubiously (many European countries are further from Kyoto targets than is the United States), that Europe is already on board, what are the options?

1. China and India are less locked into fossil fuels than is the United States, and as Brazil has done they will take the lead in moving toward energy alternatives.  America does not need to get them "on board," and given their cooperativeness American energy policy will matter at the margin.

2. We can cut a deal with China and India at a suitably presented international convention.  China and India will enforce this deal and abide by it, overcoming previous problems they have had ruling their provinces and avoiding excess decentralization.

3. Forget about the international conference, we can pressure China and India by twisting their arms.  Like we’ve done with the Chinese currency.  We also can threaten them with trade taxes, as has been discussed in Europe.

4. We are best saying nothing to China and India and calling no conference.  There is some chance they will act unilaterally, out of pride and the desire to upstage the United States.  External pressure will be counterproductive, remember British imperialism and the Opium Wars?

5. China and India will continue to be major polluters.  If we tax American-generated carbon we pay a big price in terms of economic growth but make no real progress on global warming.

6. We do not know what China and India will do, but the United States is a world leader and ought to move first, set a good example, and do the right thing.

Do we know the relative merits of 1-6?  I don’t.  Keep also in mind that what works for China may not work for India, and vice versa.

Of course #5, however ignoble it sounds, is the most serious argument for doing little or nothing.  #6 sounds good, but at what point is the chance of #5 high enough to scare us off?

What would it cost China and India to make progress on global warming?  Yes Stern estimates it would be a relatively small percentage of gdp, but that is naive.  A major problem is institutional, not technological.

I am reminded of some estimates of the costs of cleaning up avian flu in Asia.  Measure how much it costs to kill (or vaccinate) one chicken.  Not much.  Multiply by the number of sick chickens.  You have your number.

Not.  Many Asian countries simply can’t get rid of avian flu.  Their institutions are too weak, too lacking in transparency, too decentralized, and too lacking in accountability.

Or how much would it cost to improve the standard of living in Haiti?  A few cops, some rule of law, free trade at the ports, and set up some real schools, right?  Under one plausible view of the world, that is only a few billion dollars or so.  But if we consider some of the very tight institutional constraints faced in Haiti, most of all the almost total unwillingness of the elites and the common voters to support a better politics, the price can seem almost infinite.  Which perspective is correct? 

The bottom line: When it comes to global warming, the most important question is how China and India will behave, and what kind of leverage "the good countries," if indeed there are any, might have.  The correct answer is not a simple matter of fact, but rather rests upon deep questions of how to measure the costs of institutional change and what we can justifiably take as an open variable amenable to change.

All other issues aside, that is why global warming is such a tough problem.  I don’t like #5, but if you want to sell me on your solution, talk to me some sense about China and India.

Addendum: Jane Galt has a lengthy post on discount rates.


Based on what I've been hearing from automotive economists this past week, there is little reason to believe Chinese carbon production will go anywhere but up. Auto ownership has tripled in the past few years and auto production will continue to grow as companies like DaimlerChrysler outsource small car production. The issue will probably become worse as those cars bought in the past few years age and there's a lack of qualified mechanics to maintain them.

My father works in the energy industry with the Chinese. When I asked him about this, he stated unequivocally that the Chinese will not spend the money necessary to run clean energy at this point. I don't think it is arguable that clean energy is a luxury that rich countries can afford and poor ones cannot. Despite their growing GDP, China is still a poor country, and until such time as they become a rich one, they will not focus on environmental issues like we do in the west. In my opinion, they are right to take this attitude. The money they would spend on something as hazy as global warming can be much better spent on things with more immediate and tangible benefits, such as education, the overall energy grid, and yes, avian flu. When they are more able to walk as an economy, they can run with cleaner energy.

yeah i am with global warming. i support it 24/7.

How would the united states seeking to limit green house gases not have an impact because of China and India? The United States is responsible for about a quarter of mankind's Co2 emmissions. What we do has a big impact. Now as for China and India, I think they would be doing themselves a disservice by trying to seeking to limit green house emmissions. There is a reason that relatively few people die when natural disaster strikes America but scores of people die when similar disasters strike less developed countries.

Alternative solution 7.

Invest in technology/solutions that reduce global warming at prices competitive to fossil fuels. The market will discard fossil fuels quicker than you can blink (see the explosion of cell phones in India/China over wired infrastructure build out). The key is to focus on technologies that are more efficient (electronics that sleep, more efficient refrigerators, air-conditioners and stoves, and of course more efficient cars, trucks and industries) and license them cheaply to Chinese/Indian manufacturers

I disagree that China and India are the most important issues. Their gg emissions will, and probably should, increase over the next half-century or so, as they continue to develop. The same is true for other developing countries.

The most important issue for climate change has less to do with any country's emissions portfolio but with the EFFECTS of climate change in the developing countries that can least afford to deal with those effects. As Thomas Schelling has written in several recent publications, dealing with the effects of climate change in developing countries will require more than the small-scale "adaptation projects" contemplated by the Framework Conventionn on Climate Change. What is required is something more on the scale of the Marshall Plan to promote the development of stable market and governmental institutions in developing countries. Such a plan could be financed by revenues from emissions taxes (as Nordhaus recommends) in developed countries.

This implies that Kyoto should be scrapped in favor of a tax-based regime. That new regime should also focus more discriminately on those emissions of gg gases that can be reduced the most at lowest social cost. For example, CO2 emissions from power plants and smokestack industries are relatively easy to control and measure. By focusing on just a few gg gases and sources of emissions, the administrative costs of control can be significantly reduced.


80% of the CO2 in the atmosphere came from the *existing* industrial countries.

The Global Warming problem was created by the industrialised countries, not by the emerging markets.

CO2 emissions per Chinese citizen are 1/10th of what they are per US citizen. China is still only pumping out half as much greenhouse gases as the US is. Right now in fact China is probably actually *reducing* global warming (because of the amount of Sulphur Dioxide it pumps out, which has a short term cooling effect). The bad news is that SO2 now doesn't offset CO2 output in the longer term (the SO2 turns into acid rain), and in any case the Chinese will have to deal with their acid rain problem sooner than later.

CO2 emissions per Indian citizen are about 1/25th of what they are per US citizen (I'd have to check that number).

Yes China and India matter. But in future prospect. The problem is one we created, and we can't expect them to do anything about it, if we don't.

It's also worth noting that the Chinese average vehicle fuel economy will exceed the American one-- they have mandated a minimum fuel efficiency for new cars.

And energy conservation targets of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20% are part of this 5 year plan.

I am trying to reconcile Jane Galt's reply with some sort of morality that is not grotesque.

If they will be lower emitters/captia what is the proposed reason for setting appropriate levels per person?

Should levels be capped at the level of nation states? (sounds absurd to me)
Should the Chinese, for example, be given an amount, say 3/5 the amount of the global warming of an American?

I am seriously baffled here. What is the criteria?


I'm not convinced yet by your reply to Nathan. I repeat not convinced 'yet'. Nathan's point is that alternative energy sources will also have negative externalities, including potential weather/climate effects. Even if the amount of total energy hitting the planet does not change, I am told that a re-ordering of existing stuff can cause climate change. For example, if we were to purposefully use existing earth-energy energy to melt the ice caps and dilute the salinity of the North Atlantic then that will supposedly redirect ocean currents and cause a mini ice age. Now, as a layman, I am told that we should erect many thousands of wind turbines and solar panels. Is there something about wind that redirecting its currents near the surface on a massive scale in concentrated locations won't have atmospheric spillovers? Seems counter-intuitive but I am a layman.

i love how almost every solution offered ignores that the world's nation states can agree about almost nothing, and even when they purport to agree (kyoto), many states fail to live up to their obligations. if wishes were horses than etc. this smells very much like a religion to me (for those who have dispensed with traditional religion), where somehow we will all see the light, be saved, and live in green peace and harmony forever. not likely. so you're left with tyler's do nothing/little option.

btw, where do the apocalyptic scenarios come from? i've seen nothing scientific that suggests some marginally rising sea levels could lead to global anarchy (instead, we get longer growing seasons, more food, etc.). and all such scenarios seemingly ignore that we may have developed hover-houses by then (or will be spurred to do so by warming), so that we can mitigate rising sea levels (holland seems to be pretty much alright).

Tyler's view seems to be that pollution by china and india will swamp any by the west. but this by itself is not decisive for the choice between #5 and #6. what is the marginal benefit to the world of reduced emissions by the west when worldwide emissions are already very high versus when worldwide emissions are very low?

it could easily be that the former is larger than the latter in which case the inevitable pollution levels of china and india make us even more aggressive in cutting emissions in the west.

No matter what your discount rate, it makes no sense to worry about the effects of global warming in 50 years while ignoring where China and India will be in 15 years.

"All the evidence indicates...there is no point at which the marginal benefits exceed the marginal costs"

Care to give some names? My understanding is that conservative cost-benefit analyses exepct net-benefits to arrive sometime after 2300. Of course this is of little help for policy making today, I am just wondering what literature you are refering to.

"what is the marginal benefit to the world of reduced emissions by the west when worldwide emissions are already very high versus when worldwide emissions are very low? "

Well, since Kyoto would have almost zero practical climate change effect even according to its supporters, it would appear that the marginal benefit is very low.

TheCoach, you mistake me. There is a reason for setting emissions targets at the level of the nation state: that is the level at which environmental policy gets made. That's not a moral question; it's simply a practical one. I'm not saying we should keep the Chinese down, but for China and India to get to even a fraction of Western living standards will be a huge burden on the environment, whether or not this is just, because there are just so many people there. "Old Europe" has a population of about 375 million; the US has 300 million; Canada 30 million, Japan 125 million. All told, that is 825 million people, give or take a few. China and India have, together, about 2.4 billion. And their economies are far less carbon efficient than ours per unit of GDP; China, for example, is exploiting its huge coal deposits. So for China/India to get to, say, 1/3 of Western GDP per capita will have them emitting more than the West combined now. Perhaps morality dictates that they be allowed to do this (and at any rate, I doubt we can stop them), but the climate will warm up and destroy Bangladesh, just the same.

Unless you're going to ban fossil fuels, breaking OPEC and sending oil prices lower will just result in higher consumption of oil. The Efficiency Paradox is alive and well.

Still no serious estimates of cost & benefits (bogus Stern report notwithstanding).

The eco-doom-sayers exhibit all the classic signs of religious, cultish, behavior. Why are we forced to take their new Earth religion at face value? Just because they say we are about to descend into a new hell on Earth doesn't make it so.

It's crazy. When a bible-thumper starts talking Armageddon we all know to ignore him, not make public policy from his fevered rantings. But when Al Gore makes an end times movie we are supposed to take him as a real authority?

Environmentalism is a snobbish affectation of the educated elite. Enviros either a) hate people (especially poor people) or b) are unwilling to think through the consequences of their favored policies.

Most hard-core enviros I've known seem to have a real animosity toward humanity, they often use terms like 'cancer' to describe us. It's all bs Rousseauian nature worship. The city elite have been ranting against civilization for 200 hundred years, it's nothing new. They really hate their fellow first worlders, but it's the poor who get trampled on.

I just hope the poor Indians and Chinese aren't fooled into thinking the enviros actually care about them and tell the Greens where to stick it.

Sadly the Greens will manage to screw the poor by slowing down economic growth (the only thing that actually helps people) in the developed world (and thus world GDP). But the enviros are, as they are oh so keen to tell you, good and pure and will never acknowledge the suffering they are responsible for. Self-righteous bastards.

Please gentlemen, the correct metric for the assessment of carbon emissions is ton(s) of CO2 per unit of production, not per capita.
Though the US produces a claimed 25 percent of the worldwide CO2 emissions, our productivity per ton of emissions blows away the world, including the Eurozone. I do not see the value for the world economy in cutting the efforts of the most productive economy in favor of less (and in the case of China and India, much less) efficient economies. This policy would lead to a higher level of pollution for the same amount of production, or lower production/less growth for the world.

In the long run, the best way to get China and India to limit emissions is to make it cheaper for them to do so. And the best way to do that is to start limiting U.S carbon emissions in a market-based way, so that the U.S. economy (which is the best in the world at innovation) will have the incentive to invest in the creation of new emission limiting technologies.

Also, I think the point about institutional weakness in China and India is overstated, because growth and strong institutions go hand in hand. As these countries grow into modern fuel guzzling economies, their institutions will strengthen apace.


Current CO2 levels are over 380ppm-- your data is out of date that's the problem with this, take your eye off the ball, and the ball moves.

I disagree entirely about marginal benefit and cost:

- you have the potential for permanently destabilising climate change -- you have to put an option value on that, it's a huge negative externality

- you have the potential the temperature increase is more than we forecast (less is less of a concern)

- it is not the case that damage rises linearly with temperature. Anything but. Stern tackles this in some detail.

The global warming that is in the bank from CO2 emissions to date (2 degrees centigrade) we can abate most of the harmful effects (that is what the IPCC is aiming at). We might lose Bangladesh (which is a moral point about what a country is worth), and we will lose perhaps as many as 50% of all species (wide range of estimates, but that is based on mapping the existing ranges of species, to the new world 2 degrees warmer, and seeing what survives).

But at 5 degrees C, as Stern points out, the damages will be so huge that we really haven't tried to quantify them.

The damage function is highly nonlinear.


As I said, people have gone to great efforts to model the potential impacts of building windmills.

An increase in wind capacity to 2 Terrawatts (2000GW or roughly twice existing US generation capacity from all sources, would increase continental temperature at seasonal peak by 0.5 degrees Kelvin (centigrade) and by 1/10th of that over a year, and a negligible effect on the global average temperature.

*however* the displaced CO2 emission would have an opposite effect.

The amount of energy we are proposing to divert from the wind to generate electricity is *tiny* in the context of the total wind energy out there. Like fractions of a percentage point.

In addition, wind movements are themselves spent as friction upon the planet's surface. A windmill doesn't change that outcome although it alters where the drag takes place.


There are a whole lot of things that could potentially happen that we don’t put option values on. There’s no indication whatsoever that a permanently destabilized climate is more than an infinitesimal likelihood. We’re already three-quarters of the way towards a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations from pre-industrial levels. There has been about a half degree warming, no increase in the rate of sea level rise, no long term trends in storminess, hurricanes or any of the other predicted catastrophes. Nor is there any indication that climate change has cost anybody a red cent.

Nor is there any evidence that the damage function is nonlinear. Stern is hand waving.

Valuethinker: look at the historical temperature graphs here, and ask yourself what happened in the Ganges Delta in the 1200s, and how many species disappeared then, or during the holocene maximum.

Species extinction is much more a function of human activities other than global warming.

None of that, however, obviates the wisdom of using more nuclear power.

The ultimate reason China and India won't "get on board" is the same reason many Americans won't: global warming is an elite concern, with the price to be paid primarily by today's poor. Whether AGW is happening or not, pretty much all the CO2 reduction strategies focus on making modern life more expensive to live, and increasing the role of the government in living it.

This is why I'm a big fan of the "techno-fix" - assuming AGW is happening (which I'm still skeptical about), technology improvements that reduce CO2 without making the world a more expensive place is the only approach that will work. Policy approaches are subject to other political concerns, and transnational approaches have "externalities" for freedom and national sovereignty that could well be worse than global warming itself.

So, if you care about AGW (or have other reasons for wanting to see fossil-fuel use reduced, like de-funding Hugo Chavez, KSA terrorist-funders, and Iran), beat the drum for all manner of non-emitting power generation and transportation technologies, including the un-PC ones like nuclear power.

China plans to add 32 nuclear reactors to its existing 11 by 2020, while India, which currently operates 14 plants, aims to triple its reactor capacity over the next 6 years.

Let's not forget that Three Gorges will be at 18.2 GWe by 2009 and will eventually rise to 22.4 GWe. They will move 10.2 GWe of it to the coast using new high-voltage DC line technology. (22.4 GWe is about 5% of total current US power generation, for example)

However there is research that now shows that many dams make up for their reduction in CO2 emissions with an increase in (the much more potent GHG) methane in the upstream lake.

" If we tax American-generated carbon we pay a big price in terms of economic growth but make no real progress on global warming."

Why is this so? Would a significant carbon tax do more damage to economic growth than a significant income tax increase? I think the last few years have demonstrated that one tax increase or another is coming. Even if you disagree with that, would you accept a revenue-neutral carbon tax for income tax trade? My thought is that would help the economy.

I also don't under the "no real progress" comment; just because we won't be the biggest producer at some point in the future, does not mean that our choices don't effect the world on the margin, if you will.


Here are my thoughts on the options raised by Tyler, at least as regards China:

1. China gets something like 70 percent of its total energy needs from coal and they have one of the largest coal reserves of any country in the world. They are also the No. 2 petroleum consumer, having surpassed Japan at some point in the last couple years. They are already well and truly locked into to fossil fuels.

2. China's leaders will be happy to sign an international agreement and then promptly ignore its implementation. See "International Convenant on Human Rights".

3. Pressuring China doesn't work, at least in the degree the U.S. and Europe typically apply it. China finally moved on the currency only when it was convinced that to do so would be in its own interests, and even then they moved it in a way that would be as little as possible yet not entirely insignificant.

4. Some internal, unilateral initiative is unlikely but possible, especially if there is some sort of major environmental disaster to focus national outrage.

5. This is most likely unless a disaster as raised in point 4 occurs.

Regarding your statment in case #1, doesn't US Energy policy ALWAYS matter at the margin regardless of China/India?

Proactive measures - putting sulphur crystals in the upper atmosphere, painting road & roofs white, using iron to stimulte plankton growth, dumping agricultural refuse in water over 3,000 ft deep, miles of orbiting tinfoil) would not require the direct participation of China & India & would mostly cost less, sometimes a couple of orders of magnitude less, than Kyoto.

On the other hand it would probably be best to work with them since, if such measures, have differential effects in different countries, they will cause arguments & it is possible that catastrophic warming is a myth anyway.

"That's just bollocks. You guys in the USA are the big polluters whose pollution is threatening my small island-state. Not them, you. You, the USA, you are the problem."

No, meno, it's your thinking that's bollocks. The global warming threat is in the AMOUNT of greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) generated by human activity: TOTAL amount NOT per capita amount.

The member profiles found at the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum has the following data for CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use:

1 USA 5802 million metric tons
2 China 3541 million MT
3 Russia 1606.4 million MT
4 Japan 1205.5 million MT
6 Germany 842.0 million MT
Australia 340.3 million MT
Brazil 351.5 million MT
Mexico 404.7 million MT
S.Africa 411.3 million MT
S.Korea 469.5 million MT

It's sourced with data from the US Dept. of Energy's Energy Information Administration at

With 1024.8 million MT, India comes in at #5 and the European Union puts out 4048 million MT.

Both China and India are tripling their nuclear powerplants. But will that make a significant difference when nuclear power is currently 2-3% of power production in both countries? When coal-burning powerplants account for 65%?

Do the arithmetic, meno: China ALREADY tops every other country except the US. And notice, China+India ALREADY exceed the EU. It is THEM as much as it is US. Most forecasts have India and China growing 7% (or more) for some time to come, so they can reach, even exceed, present US levels of CO2 emissions.

meno, why do you willfully ignore these two big polluters that will only get bigger in very near future? Why don't China and India matter?

I missed perhaps the most important point when discussing the developing world.

The US has about 300 million people; India has more than one billion and China 1.2-1.3 billion. At our current population our CO2 emissions exceed that of all other nations. China may surpass the US in 2009 in terms of total CO2 emissions; India not for decades at least.

Can anyone explain to me why Americans as individuals have some innate "right to pollute" that exceeds that of the average citizen of China and/or India, or any developing nation, by many multiples? We have used up the lion's share of the carrying capacity of the atmosphere for our development, and now the argument seems to be (for some) that the developing world must curb its living standards so we can continue to drive SUVs and live in homes that are twice the size of our parent's generation, because it is our "right" as the most powerful nation on earth. A more equitable (and defensible) position might be that we should spend some of our wealth to use energy much more efficiently, so that citizens of nations with living standards that are 10% of ours can continue to improve their own living standards.

Obviously we should expect that developing countries take full advantage of energy technologies that limit emissions, within their financial capacities. But if we are not willing to use energy intelligently, we richly deserve whatever we get from the climate that we are largely responsible for. As always, the world's poor will suffer the full effects of climate change long before we do.

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