Trump and the Truth About Climate Change
by Joseph E. Stiglitz – July 2, 2017
Under President Donald Trump’s leadership, the United States took another major step toward establishing itself as a rogue state on June 1, when it withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. For years, Trump has indulged the strange conspiracy theory that, as he put it in 2012, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” But this was not the reason Trump advanced for withdrawing the US from the Paris accord. Rather, the agreement, he alleged, was bad for the US and implicitly unfair to it.
While fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, Trump’s claim is difficult to justify. On the contrary, the Paris accord is very good for America, and it is the US that continues to impose an unfair burden on others.
Historically, the US has added disproportionately to the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and among large countries it remains the biggest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide by far – more than twice China’s rate and nearly 2.5 times more than Europe in 2013 (the latest year for which the World Bank has reported complete data). With its high income, the US is in a far better position to adapt to the challenges of climate change than poor countries like India and China, let alone a low-income country in Africa.
In fact, the major flaw in Trump’s reasoning is that combating climate change would strengthen the US, not weaken it. Trump is looking toward the past – a past that, ironically, was not that great. His promise to restore coal-mining jobs (which now number 51,000, less than 0.04% of the country’s nonfarm employment) overlooks the harsh conditions and health risks endemic in that industry, not to mention the technological advances that would continue to reduce employment in the industry even if coal production were revived.
In fact, far more jobs are being created in solar panel installation than are being lost in coal. More generally, moving to a green economy would increase US income today and economic growth in the future. In this, as in so many things, Trump is hopelessly mired in the past.
Just a few weeks before Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord, the global High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, which I co-chaired with Nicholas Stern, highlighted the potential of a green transition. The Commission’s report, released at the end of May, argues that reducing CO2 emissions could result in an even stronger economy.
The logic is straightforward. A key problem holding back the global economy today is deficient aggregate demand. At the same time, many countries’ governments face revenue shortfalls. But we can address both issues simultaneously and reduce emissions by imposing a charge (a tax) for CO2 emissions.
It is always better to tax bad things than good things. By taxing CO2, firms and households would have an incentive to retrofit for the world of the future. The tax would also provide firms with incentives to innovate in ways that reduce energy usage and emissions – giving them a dynamic competitive advantage.