Should we put a carbon tax on China?

Paul Krugman seems to say yes:

As the United States and other advanced countries finally move to
confront climate change, they will also be morally empowered to
confront those nations that refuse to act. Sooner than most people
think, countries that refuse to limit their greenhouse gas emissions
will face sanctions, probably in the form of taxes on their exports.
They will complain bitterly that this is protectionism, but so what?
Globalization doesn’t do much good if the globe itself becomes

I cannot agree with what I think is his recommendation.  I am not a global warming denialist but:

1. The Chinese are often paranoid (arguably for good reason) and we will get further being nice to them than by being confrontational.  Krugman himself admits that they don't seem themselves as culpable on this issue.  Chinese citizens wanting clean air at home are possibly our biggest ally so let's not alienate them.

2. Last I checked China was funding a big chunk of our government's debt.  Confronting them would have to be bundled with a regime of extreme fiscal conservatism and unilateral foreign policy.

3. It can be very hard to identify and isolate the energy inputs into an exported product, especially if the host government is uncooperative and a lot of money is at stake.

4. We cannot credibly penalize the Chinese until we solve our own pollution problem.  Even under Obama's proposed policies, in their purer forms, that is at best decades away.  In the meantime, what is it that is really being advocated?  Non-credible threats?

5. Once the political process gets its hand on such tariffs they will be directed against, say, Chinese cars, including maybe relatively clean ones, rather than the dirtiest Chinese exports.

6. Last I checked there was something called the United Nations and China sat on its Security Council.  The UN is the (supposed) forum for handling problems of this nature.  Yes, we could construct an alternative "League of Democracies" as John McCain (!) had suggested, in part to deal with global warming and other multilateral problems where the non-democracies won't cooperate.  I don't favor this change but if we are going to do it we need to realize how radical a foreign policy step it would be and how Russia would respond as well. 

One lesson I take from Krugman's piece is just how thin support for multilateralism really is.

I do understand the basic instinct of "this problem is really bad so we must do something…and now!"  I would suggest that we keep in mind the less obvious, but no less important intuition: "this problem is really bad and that means a lot of what we are tempted to do could make it even worse."


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