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  • Writer's pictureTom Mast

Approaches to the Global Warming Fight So Far

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Tom Mast, founder Solve American Gridlock


The results above for carbon dioxide equivalents emissions show that we are losing the battle globally, despite some real attempts. Remember that carbon dioxide gases once in the atmosphere stay there for hundreds of years, so procrastinating makes the task much more difficult.


The fight against global warming has been piecemeal rather than comprehensive, universal, and well understood by all. Why is this state of affairs undesirable? Countries and citizens naturally expect their peers to share in the cost and inconvenience of any big chore. Also, most have a fairly good idea that the problem is global and won’t be solved until there is almost universal participation, so they wait for a “fair” system to come along.


Economists refer to “externalities”. For example, if a factory dumps its waste acid into a river, not paying for the privilege or the cost of handling it properly, the company profits from having others pay for its actions; the cost not paid by the offending company is an externality. Power plants, transportation, and other emitters of greenhouse gases haven’t paid for their externalities for tens of decades, since the industrial revolution was triggered by cheap sources of hydrocarbon energy. We consumers aren’t paying for the externalities in the costs of the products we purchase, but we receive benefits – like plentiful and inexpensive energy. Should governments order an automobile company not to build cars or to build certain types, or should the consumers have to suffer the pain – the extra cost – when using a big emitter of carbon dioxide? The economic and the science tasks are very complex, but solid information exists right now to put prices on the ways GHGs are created.


Not well known is that distinguished economists have become involved in important ways. Reducing emissions in the global warming fight is going to lower the harmful effects of climate change in the decades to come, so it is useful to quantify these “savings” and discount them back to their present value (i.e. what is the value to us today of an amount of say $1 billion saved in 2090?) Economists can do the same analysis on the costs of actions necessary in upcoming years to cause the savings. These data are required to develop a rational plan to reach a certain temperature target decades from now. These data are available now!


Scientists have done massive amounts of work including creating and using computer models to simulate the bad effects of global warming as well as the mitigating effects of various actions we might take to reduce GHG emissions.


Developed and developing countries differ in their situations vis a vis global warming. The developed countries may well have a slower growth rate in the coming decades and they have more wealth and resources, so they can accomplish more against global warming. Undeveloped countries find the decision difficult between strong growth to raise their standard of living and slower growth in order to fight global warming. These countries make the point that it was primarily the developed countries that created the global warming problem, so they should take the lead in solving it including providing funding to the poorer developing countries. They also want to use the cheapest fuels, often coal which is the worst emitter of carbon dioxide by far. These issues have made global cooperation difficult. Note the potential in the graph below for emissions to increase in large portions of the world that still use relatively little energy, like Africa and South America.



There is still not agreement on the target temperature increase by the end of this century. This is important because the climate damages are very sensitive to small increases in the target, but also because the costs of meeting a certain target are also highly dependent on it. Confusion about the target is one of the reasons why agreement on a solid pathway forward has been elusive.


In summary, the history is that the world has learned an immense amount about the science of global warming and the economics of mitigating its effects. It hasn’t yet agreed on a common way of incorporating the externalities of our use of greenhouse gas-emitting substances into our everyday life - i.e. a universal incentive to stimulate people to mitigate emissions rather than waiting to see what shoe their government will drop next. Also, it has not developed a documented common pathway for all to follow.


The Nobel Peace Prize winner, economist, and author of two important books on the economic side of global warming William Nordhaus has shown mathematically that near-universal participation around the globe will be necessary to win the global warming fight.

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