Opinion | Climate Politics Are Worse Than You Think

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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Texas is often hot, but not like this: Current forecasts have the temperature in Dallas hitting 109 degrees Tuesday, with highs in triple digits well into next week.

Britain, on the other hand, used to have a well-deserved reputation as a cool, rainy island. But as I write, the temperature in London is projected to hit 102 degrees Tuesday.

You have to be willfully blind — unfortunately, a fairly common ailment among politicians — not to see that global warming has stopped being a debatable threat that will catch up to us only years from now. It’s our current reality, and if climate scientists — whose warnings have been overwhelmingly vindicated — are right, it’s going to get much worse.

And Joe Manchin just pulled the plug on what may have been the Biden administration’s last chance to do something — anything — meaningful about climate change.

I don’t want to talk much about Manchin. In a few months he’ll probably be irrelevant, one way or another: The odds are either that Republicans will take the Senate or that Democrats, aided by the awfulness of many G.O.P. candidates, will gain some seats. And he wouldn’t have mattered in the first place but for the sickness that has infected America’s body politic.

Still, for what it’s worth, my take on Manchin is both less and more cynical than what you usually hear.

Yes, he represents a state that still thinks of itself as coal country, even though mining is now a trivial part of its economy, dwarfed by jobs in health care and social assistance — with much of the latter paid for by the federal government. Yes, he gets more political contributions from the energy industry than any other member of Congress. Yes, he has a large financial conflict of interest arising from his family’s ownership of a coal business.

Yet my guess is that his Lucy-with-the-football act has as much to do with vanity as with money. (And nothing at all to do with inflation.) His act has, after all, kept him in the political limelight month after month. And if you don’t believe that great events can be shaped, great disasters caused, by sheer personal pettiness, all I can say is that you probably haven’t read much history.

But none of this would have mattered if Republicans weren’t unified in their opposition to any action to limit global warming. This opposition has only grown more entrenched as the evidence for looming catastrophe has grown — and the likely financial cost of effective action has declined.

Let’s talk about the political economy of climate policy.

It has long been painfully obvious that voters are reluctant to accept even small short-run costs in the interest of averting long-run disaster. This is depressing, but it’s a fact of life, one that no amount of haranguing seems likely to change. This is why I’ve long been skeptical of the position, widely held among economists, that a carbon tax — putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions — has to be the central plank of climate policy. It’s true that emission taxes are the Econ 101 solution to pollution, but realistically they just aren’t going to happen in America.

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