At last week’s Republican debate, when Jake Tapper, of CNN, asked about climate change, Senator Marc Rubio and Governor Chris Christie asserted that policies designed to reduce carbon emissions would harm the U.S. economy and do nothing to counter climate change. “America is not a planet,” Rubio maintained. “And we are not even the largest carbon producer anymore; China is.” A little later when his turn came, Christie said, “I agree with Marco. We shouldn’t be destroying our economy in order to chase some wild left-wing idea that somehow us [sic] by ourselves is [sic] going to fix the climate.”
The Rubio-Christie view is one shared by certain Republicans who are willing to acknowledge that climate change is—or, at least, might be—occurring and that there’s a chance greenhouse-gas emissions are a factor. Nevertheless, they ask: What sense does it make for the U.S. to regulate our carbon-dioxide emissions when China, India, and a number of other countries don’t regulate theirs? As these Republicans see it, regulating CO2 emissions will destroy the U.S. economy and enable other nations’ economies to boom.
For a long time, I thought the right-wing argument was specious. It reminded me of the claim that one kid makes when she’s caught doing something wrong that another kid is also doing. “Well, he’s doing it!” she whines. “Why can’t I?” Upon further reflection, however, I realize that, up to a point, right-wingers make a valid point. They assume that consumers will always want more and more goods at the lowest possible prices. As long as that assumption holds true—as long as the demand for goods grows—the stuff will be made somewhere. Given that pollution controls tend to increase costs and reduce profits, producers of goods are likely to concentrate in countries where power plants and factories can spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with abandon. So, if regulations are strong in the U.S. and lax, or nonexistent, in China, China will benefit economically at the expense of the U.S.
Anyway, that’s the argument, and it’s fine as things currently stand. It would fall flat, however, if we were to shift our preferences from possessing a lot of inanimate goods to nurturing living things. And that is precisely the shift we must make. Why? Because there are too many of us, and we’re putting too much strain on the ecosphere. If we don’t begin to take care of what we have, in years to come, we will deeply regret our profligacy.
If, on the other hand, we reduce our consumption, we will consequently reduce the CO2 emissions of countries like China and India because a large percentage of those emissions are directly tied to the goods they export to us.
And what’s more important, by reducing our consumption, we’ll set an example of how to achieve a brighter, more vibrant future. As we blaze the way forward, we can tell the world: We tried consumerism and found it was a dead end. Yes, it did bring short-term gratification, but we paid for that gratification in big psychological, societal, and environmental ways. Let’s all slow down, be satisfied with having enough, nurture the life around us, and give nature time to heal.