Blog 88. Will nations ever come together?

The question looms like a cloud over United Nations negotiations in Paris this month—the 21st such attempt to forge an international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  A big reason for failing to find common ground is American intransigence on the role of government.”  (Accent mine.)

The title and quote are from Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard, author of an extensive article in the December 2015 Scientific American*.  Her point: If nations are to succeed in protecting climate, the U.S. will have to overcome its aversion to governmental action.  Oreskes offers insights that apply to social issues beyond climate.  I’ll quote her and insert a few comments.

It has long been a maxim in American life that the government that governs best governs least. … The main claim of politicians … who (oppose) government’s role … is that the world should rely on the marketplace to fix the problem. … however, energy markets do not account for the ‘external,’ or social, costs of using fossil fuels. … In our markets today, people are dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without paying for that privilege.  This is a market failure. … carbon emissions must have an associated cost.”  (In my experience, that’s true of all unrestricted pollution.)

Several countries and regions have implemented carbon prices.  In British Columbia, a carbon tax has helped cut fuel consumption … the government also lowered personal and corporate income taxes. … (also), emissions trading can work.  … the essential idea is to harness the power of market forces. … It happens through government action.  … not one of the major technological developments of the 20th century was produced by the private sector working alone.

Prof. Oreskes notes that the federal government built the delivery systems for widespread use of electricity and telephone, that “nuclear power was not a response to market demand,” that the federal government built the interstate highway system, the military invented the internet, and that the federal government developed digital computers, satellite communications, and the global positioning system by which your smart phone finds where you are.

Regarding climate, Prof. Oreskes says, “… we need to stop demonizing government and recognize its crucial role in doing the most important thing that markets do not do, which is prioritizing and sustaining the common good.

I note that’s true for climate, and for many other things governments do: creation and regulation of  highways, prevention of disease, control of an orderly airspace, definition and control of crime, specification of standards, public safety, prevention of disasters  and response to emergencies.

The professor observes, “… markets are effective in distributing goods and services efficiently to those who have the money to pay for them, but … the external costs remain almost entirely unpaid.  Our dominant discourse insists that we can solve these problems by continuing the policies and practices that created them. … markets, by themselves, do not remedy market failures.  Governments do. … Government is not the (only) solution, but it has to be part of the solution.

Oreskes quotes an expert on European fascism: “a common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority.”  In comparison with federal expenditures for energy research, the professor cites a figure from the International Monetary fund: “in 2015 the world will spend $5.3 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies … .”  Apparently, proponents of unrestricted markets do not regard subsidies as improper government interference.

I assert that an absence of state authority generates chaos, seen wherever governments are weak.  The U.S. was founded by people who sought political and religious freedom.  For comparison, Latin America was founded by people who sought riches.  The resulting difference of the societies is apparent.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is now trending toward a third-world political and moral philosophy in which riches and rulers become concurrent.  With that, how can the U.S. lead, rather than prevent, action for the common good in climate or in anything else?

* Scientific American, December 2015, pp. 74-79.