Breaking the Iron Law of Climate Policy

by Pete Geddes

The 1,200-page American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, known as Waxman-Markey, sets an ambitious target of reducing total U.S. greenhouse emissions 83 percent by the year 2050. In 2005, the year chosen as the baseline, the U.S. emitted about 6 billion tons of CO2. An 83 percent reduction by 2050 means that U.S. emissions must be just over one billion tons.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Steve Hayward puts this in context. He writes that the U.S. last emitted one billion tons of CO2 in 1910, when our population was 92 million and total GDP (in 2008 dollars) about $572 billion. (2008 GDP was $14.2 trillion.) In order to reach the target, per-capita CO2 emissions will have to be no more than 2.4 tons. The last time U.S. citizens emitted this low level of carbon was 1875. These kinds of reductions are so absurd they will not even be seriously attempted.

Climate change is not a pollution problem. It is an energy use problem. Since economic activity drives growth in CO2 emissions, governments are loath to pursue policies that limit the economic opportunities of its citizens. This is what Roger Pielke Jr. call the “Iron Law of Climate Policy.” I’ve just started his new book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. Well worth your time.

So what to do? Here’s suggestion from Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University. He  writes in Nature:

A successful climate policy regime will match short-term costs with the real potential of short-term gains. These gains can come from reducing vulnerabilities to climate impacts, and increasing security and wealth generation from energy-technology innovation. Both paths call on the government to do things that most people see as appropriate: to provide public goods and promote innovation. Both paths also allow climate change to be understood not as impending doom that requires deep sacrifice to ensure survival, but as an opportunity to continually improve society.

Sounds reasonable to me.


  1. I think the reductions sound worse when we remember that automobiles account for about 1/5 of all CO2 emissions. So if we eliminated cars entirely, we’d still have to get 75% of the emissions out of the system. Or to put it another way, to get an 83% reduction, we could keep our cars (given current technology, ceteris paribus, etc.) and then just emit ZERO other emissions. In other words, our embalmed bodies could be put into those cars!