Why Global Warming Is Different and Harder Than Previous Environmental Problems


There’s a consensus among leading scientists that global warming is caused by human activity. What–if anything–should we do about it?


JEFFREY BALL: Global warming is fundamentally harder than past environmental problems. Unlike smog or litter or dirty rivers, it’s global, long term and largely invisible. The upshot: Solving global warming is the top priority of essentially no one (save a relative handful of scientists and environmental activists).


That suggests two basic principles for fighting global warming. First, the steps that will be most politically feasible are those that happen to curb greenhouse-gas emissions in the process of doing something that more people care more about: cleaning the air, or producing jobs or making money. Second, in contrast to the approach taken thus far, the steps that make the most sense are the ones that are most economically efficient.

A third basic principle is equally important: Technological breakthroughs are hard to predict. So it’s unwise to ground any strategy to curb global warming on the expectation that a particular technology will get big enough and cheap enough to be a main fix.


Those three basic principles are pretty general. They point to two more-specific approaches:


Focus on the biggest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions. That includes a handful of gases produced in industrial processes that, pound for pound, pack a far heavier global-warming punch than does carbon dioxide. As for carbon dioxide, it means focusing on China, the world’s biggest emitter and a place that has an incentive to clean up its energy system that most people see as far more compelling than global warming: dirty air.


And when governments around the world spend money to promote cleaner energy, it’s worth structuring those subsidies to reward not specific predetermined technologies, but whichever technologies over time end up able to produce the most environmental gain at the lowest cost.


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