Copenhagen: A Failure of Economics

President Obama, like other world leaders, returned home from Copenhagen empty-handed.  No binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions.  Some blame Obama for not offering enough.  Others blame Chinese President Jintao for resisting verification.  Others blame developing countries for demanding too much in exchange for reductions in deforestation. 

But the real blame lies at the feet of the field of economics.  For the better part of two centuries, after disowning Malthus and vowing never again to consider the ramifications of population growth, economists have clung to a doomed model of perpetual growth.  They fail to understand that just because limitations have been pushed back a hundred or even a thousand times, doesn’t mean they can be pushed back forever in this finite world.  Closing their eyes to this reality like the “see no evil” monkey, they steadfastly maintain that man is clever enough to overcome any obstacle to growth. 

Until now, nothing has proven them wrong.  Oceans over-fished?  No problem!  Fish are now raised on “farms.”  Oil getting scarce?  We learned to drill off-shore.  Even when the earth’s ozone layer was threatened by CFCs, we were ready with benign, substitute refrigerant compounds.  Global cooperation in the interest of the common good wasn’t a problem when technological solutions were waiting in the wings.  But then came global warming.    

It’s not as though they didn’t see it coming.  We’ve known for at least half a century that we would run out of oil some day in the future.  And suspicion about the climate effects of rising CO2 levels has been building for at least two decades.  Our leaders, scientists and economists calmed our fears with talk of alternative energy – primarily wind and solar.  What they didn’t tell us was that the energy needed to keep the economy humming at its current level dwarfs what could be provided by those renewable sources even in their wildest dreams, not to mention the energy needed by developing nations clawing their way out of poverty and the energy needed to sustain economic growth into perpetuity. 

Some spoke of converting the economy to natural gas on a huge scale, a short-term solution at best.  Others spoke of more nuclear plants, ignoring the fact that nobody wants a nuclear waste dump in their back yard, and there’s no longer any place left that isn’t someone’s back yard. 

What they were counting on all along was the holy grail of energy – nuclear fusion – the energy that powers the sun.  Clean and limitless, it promised to remove energy as a constraint to growth for all time.  But after decades of pouring billions of dollars into research, the sad reality is that it’s simply not feasible. 

So we’re left with nothing.  If you don’t believe this, just read the “cap and trade” legislation that’s pending in the house of representatives.  You’ll find that it relies heavily on technology to capture and store CO2 underground – technology that doesn’t even exist yet – while continuing to burn fossil fuels.  Included in the bill is money to incentivize the development of such technology. 

So for the first time in Copenhagen, political leaders, economists and the scientific community came together to face a global threat to the common good with goals, but no solution.  They reached deep into the economic tool bag and found only one tool left – delaying the inevitable.  Given a choice between acting for the common good of future generations vs. basking in the “we can grow forever” delusion for just a little longer, they chose the latter.  Given the opportunity to finally cast off their failed model in exchange for one built on stability and sustainability, the “see no evil monkey” of economics and its minions of gullible political leaders chose to close their eyes even more tightly. 

Whether you believe that global warming is man-made or not is probably irrelevant.  The point is that the majority of scientists, political leaders and even economists believe that it is, enough so that they convened this conference in Copenhagen to address it.  They came with goals for cutting emissions, but because they were without solutions, they couldn’t bring themselves to pull the trigger.  At Copenhagen, the field of economics,  its model of perpetual growth and its blind faith in man’s ability to push back boundaries was finally exposed as a fraud.

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5 Responses to Copenhagen: A Failure of Economics

  1. ClydeB says:

    Ample evidence of climate change abounds. Change is the key word. It has always been in a constant state of change and will probably continue, with or without man. Warming and cooling cycles are bound up in the historic records. At the present time, we happen to be recovering from a cool period but still not up to average temperature.

    Population change has only gone in one direction, UP. With the greatest rate of growth coming in very recent times. At the same time the number of people has increased, the available resources have diminished, yet the powers that be promote more growth.

    Population growth (or reduction)is something that the world governments could actually do something about and would be far more benficial than the hand wringing over the natural swings in the earths temperature, but there is no beneficial effect on the next quarters financial statement for corporations or the campaign contributions for politicians.

    Until the electorate gets serious about replacing the entrenched politicians, with “citizen legislators” with term limits, the condition will persist.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      I think you’re right, Clyde. I had high hopes for some real change from Obama, but it seems that the promises were just rhetoric. There’s little hope that anything will improve as long as these two parties are in power.

  2. Vigilante says:

    The Republican Reich-wing is against anything that smacks of contraception, family planning, and abortion. Reproduction and unregulated capitalism will destroy life on this planet as we have known it. The best years of the human species, perhaps all species, are behind us.

  3. ClydeB says:

    It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the difference between the party labels. Pimps and prostitutes should be enraged to be compared to some of the legislators who have shown their character in the last few weeks and months. I heard a drunken sailor declare that he would fight anyone who compared the spending practices of the legislators to drunken sailors, in defense of the sailors.

    With respect to population management, we don’t need to follow the Red Chinese policy, we can do the job with education, tax policy and foreign policy. Why foreign policy? It matters little what the USA does in the big picture look. The entire world needs to get on board. The people in the most impoverished places of the earth continue to reproduce at a high rate in the face of some of the most difficult conditions imaginable and a combination of education and foreign aid management could go make a tremendous difference there. The other major area of concern to me is the population explosion in the Muslim countries and the Muslim population of the European countries. Mostly poor and mostly unassimilated. The stuff trouble is made of for us all.

    I will require a flushing of the elected officials in this country to see any of the needed changes come about.

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