Paul Krugman: Time to save the planet

We are now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution

Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip

Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip

 

So what’s really at stake in this year’s US election? Well, among other things, the fate of the planet.

Last year was the hottest on record, by a wide margin, which should – but won’t – put an end to climate deniers’ claims that global warming has stopped. The truth is that climate change just keeps getting scarier; it is, by far, the most important policy issue facing the world. Still, this US election would not have much bearing on the issue if there were no prospect of effective action against the looming catastrophe.

But the situation on that front has changed drastically for the better in recent years, because we are now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution. What’s more, getting that energy revolution would not require a political revolution. All it would take are fairly modest policy changes, some of which have happened and others of which are underway. But those changes won’t happen if the wrong people end up in power.

To see what I am talking about, you need to know something about the current state of climate economics, which has changed far more in recent years than most people seem to realise.

Most people who think about the issue at all probably imagine that achieving a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would necessarily involve big economic sacrifices. This view is required orthodoxy on the right, where it forms a second line of defence against action, just in case denial of climate science and witch-hunts against climate scientists do not do the trick. For example, in the last Republican debate Marco Rubio insisted, as he has before, that cap-and-trade would be “devastating for our economy”.

Overthrowing capitalism

But things are actually much more hopeful than that, thanks to remarkable technological progress in renewable energy.

So what will it take to achieve a large-scale shift from fossil fuels to renewables, a shift to sun and wind instead of fire? Financial incentives, and they don’t have to be all that huge. Tax credits for renewables that were part of the Obama stimulus plan, and were extended under the recent budget deal, have done a lot to accelerate the energy revolution. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, with strong incentives to move away from coal, will do much more.

And none of this will require new legislation; we can have an energy revolution even if the crazies retain control of the House.

Now, sceptics may point out that even if all these good things happen, they will not be enough on their own to save the planet. For one thing, we are only talking about electricity generation, which is a big part of the climate change problem but not the whole thing. For another, we are only talking about one country when the problem is global.

But I would argue that the kind of progress now within reach could produce a tipping point in the right direction. Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success and, yes, a powerful interest group, anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip. And an energy revolution in America would let it take the lead in global action. – Copyright New York Times 2016

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