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Angel Cabrera
Academic President

Stuck with carbon lock-in

Q: Now that even China has put a price on carbon emissions, the U.S. is the only major economy yet to take action on global warming. Why does this issue seem to defy political leadership? Who, in your opinion, is MOST responsible for the leadership failure--President Obama and Senate leaders for not forcing a deal? Republicans unwilling to consider anything that might raise energy prices? Coal and oil state Democrats? Republican moderates who bowed to conservative pressure?

The US suffers from a severe case of what my Thunderbird colleague Gregory Unruh termed years ago "carbon lock-in" . Carbon lock-in refers to the self-perpetuating inertia created by interlocking institutional forces and cultural norms that inhibit efforts to develop alternative energy systems.

In other words, we're stuck with carbon-producing fossil fuels because any alternative would create an immediate loss to many actors, private and public: from energy companies to automobile manufacturers, transportation operators, regulators and even consumers, who have developed a fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle. The pain of any tax on carbon would be certain, personal and immediate, while the benefits of a shift towards alternative energies would be long-term, uncertain and shared. This market and policy failure is more severe in the US than elsewhere, because the stakes here are higher. The answer to the question "who is most responsible" cannot be other than "all of the above".

Unlocking the US economy from carbon won't be easy. According to Unruh "social change often precedes institutional change in democratic societies" because of the inherent difficulties in transforming institutions (let alone interdependent, mutually supporting institutional systems). Change can likely be only initiated by a broad social movement. If so, the best thing political leaders can do is to facilitate the emergence of such movement through education and awareness campaigns and by trying to be more precise about the tangible costs of not doing anything.

By Angel Cabrera

 |  August 3, 2010; 5:45 PM ET
Category:  Failures , Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Do the right thing even if it hurts | Next: Climate change legislation paralysis


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The four panelists were all calling for agressive action to reduce carbon emissions. No alternatives. Your comment , "the pain of any tax on carbon would be certain, personal, and immediate, while the benefits of a shift toward alternatives would be long-term, uncertain and shared", is the heart of the matter. The alternative fuels available today are very costly and available in very limited quantities. The inertia in greenhouse gas dispersion systems along with the lack of alternative fuels will make any significant reduction in global temperatures impossible in this century. The laws of probabilities tells us that predicting events 90 years in the future, with the uncertainties involved is a fools game

Posted by: pcquiggskeptic | August 8, 2010 8:51 PM
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Cap & Trade would require an expensive, slow, bloated, byzantine bureaucracy … and will be susceptible to political influence and downright corruption. A uniform Carbon Tax (at point of combustion), on the other hand, is transparent, logical, honest, equitable, and consistent. The public will understand and support the Carbon Tax and will loathe Cap & Trade.

Posted by: arcturus2 | August 5, 2010 12:36 PM
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