Economy  
comments_image Comments

Paul Krugman on the Surprising Reason Limiting Carbon Emissions Makes Conservatives so Angry

Vested interests are only part of the story.
 
 
Share

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

Paul Krugman investigates one of the great mysteries of our day in his Monday column. Why, in the face of devastating consequences that are already upon us, is it so hard to take action to curb man-made global warming?

The venerable economist considers the usual suspects, and pretty much discounts them. Instituting emission controls will cause minimal economic harm. Even the anti-science U.S. Chamber of Commerce, try as they might, only found modest costs to carbon reductions. Is it the power of vested interests? he wonders.  

I’ve been looking into that issue and have come to the somewhat surprising conclusion that it’s not mainly about the vested interests. They do, of course, exist and play an important role; funding from fossil-fuel interests has played a crucial role in sustaining the illusion that climate science is less settled than it is. But the monetary stakes aren’t nearly as big as you might think. 

What about the coal workers? Won't they be hurt? More like the coal owners.

Krugman points out that the truth is that there are very few coal-mining jobs left.

Once upon a time King Coal was indeed a major employer: At the end of the 1970s there were more than 250,000 coal miners in America. Since then, however,  coal employment has fallen by two-thirds, not because output is down — it’s up, substantially — but because most coal now comes from strip mines that require very few workers. At this point, coal mining accounts for only one-sixteenth of 1 percent of overall U.S. employment; shutting down the whole industry would eliminate fewer jobs than America lost in an average week during the Great Recession of 2007-9.

Or put it this way: The real war on coal, or at least on coal workers, took place a generation ago, waged not by liberal environmentalists but by the coal industry itself. And coal workers lost.


So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed.