Earth Day Versus Earth Race

In “Off to the Races,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman contrasts “two basic strategies for dealing with climate change.”

The Earth Day strategy is epitomized by a series of eponymous events as well as other summits, such as Copenhagen. “The Earth Day strategy said that the biggest threat to mankind is climate change, and we as a global community have to hold hands and attack this problem with a collective global mechanism for codifying and verifying everyone’s carbon-dioxide emissions and reductions…”

However, Friedman questions the viability of the Earth Day strategy. “[A]nyone who watched the chaotic way [the Copenhagen] conference was ‘organized,’ and the bickering by delegates with which it finished, has to ask whether this 17-year U.N. process to build a global framework to roll back global warming is broken.” Thus, while agreeing that the Earth Day process has not been “a waste,” Friedman dubs himself “an Earth Race guy.”

The Earth Race strategy considers “averting catastrophic climate change [to be] a huge scale issue. The only engine big enough to impact Mother Nature is Father Greed: the Market. Only a market, shaped by regulations and incentives to stimulate massive innovation in clean, emission-free power sources can make a dent in global warming.”

This Earth Day versus Earth Race logic leads Friedman to conclude that priority one is “getting the U.S. Senate to pass an energy bill, with a long-term price on carbon that will really stimulate America to become the world leader in clean-tech.”

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If you believe that CO2 is an externality (and most people now do), then removing uncertainty through regulation seems to be important step. Until CO2 emissions (and its “equivalents”) have a price, there is little incentive for internalizing such costs. But I fail to see how such a policy is the exclusive domain of an Earth Race strategy. It seems that regulating carbon is also a logical conclusion of an Earth Day strategy.

Moreover, despite potentially agreeing with his conclusion, I am not sure about Friedman’s logic. For one, the either/or dichotomy implicit in Friedman’s article ignores the potential interdependencies between an Earth Day strategy and an Earth Race strategy. If anything, I suspect the Earth Race strategy is best understood as an emergent response to the growing prominence (political and otherwise) of the Earth Day strategy. Having said that, I would not go so far as to suggest that an Earth Race was either an inevitable response or even the only possible response to the Earth Day strategy. Further, it is difficult to imagine the Earth Race strategy having any traction were it not for the forty years of effort put into the Earth Day strategy. In fact, it is not entirely clear that the Earth Race strategy has sufficient traction to sustain itself.

Additionally, it is ironic that Friedman’s proposed solution — “the Market” — is only viable when “shaped by regulations and incentives.” I am not troubled by these conditions. If anything, I see them as acknowledgment(whether intended or not) that markets are social constructions. As a result, markets are not inherently capable of solving social problems. “Greed is good” (or bad) only if and when human institutions make it so. “Successful” markets require every bit as much explanation as market failures. However, if Friedman’s conditions are also intended to signal the possibility of intentionally designing a “perfect” (i.e., rational) carbon market, then we should be concerned. As social constructions markets are not inherently rational.

Finally, my biggest concern involves Friedman’s comparison between the Earth Race strategy and the Space Race, in which “two countries competed” to “be the first to put a man on the moon.” While a potentially interesting analogy, apart from sharing the word “race” it is unclear to me what the two scenarios have in common. In particular, it is not clear how (if at all) market dynamics played a role in the space race — either in the United States or (especially) in the Soviet Union.  Instead, if there is a parallel between the space race and climate change, it seems to me the lesson is that creating public goods may require massive government investments in technologies, and protection from market dynamics.

In short, I find Friedman’s latest article thought provoking. His contrast between Earth Day and Earth Race strategies provides a compact way of thinking about alternative approaches to a complex problem. And yet, while inclined to support his conclusion that we need a carbon market, if anything, such a policy seems entirely inconsistent with the lessons of the space race. It would not be inaccurate to describe the space race as dependent on a singular enemy, driven by an appeal to nationalistic fervor, and indebted to massive governmental investments in the industrial-military complex.

In other words, if Friedman is right, if what we need is an Earth Race strategy, and if the Earth Race is like the Space Race, then it seems the last thing we need is a carbon market. Instead, what we need is an enemy, more nationalism and massive spending. However, in the case of climate change, the problem is that we have seen the enemy. The enemy is us. “Them” in this case is “Us.” Pushed in this direction, an Earth Race strategy suggests annihilation is victory. If that is the case, there can be no winner in the Earth Race. Thus, I am inclined to think that solving climate change is probably not at all like putting a man on the moon. And considering the moon walk remains an enigma, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

But then, to what shall we liken climate change?