Thomas Friedman has yet another column on reducing our use of oil and other dirty energy sources. Al Gore gave a speech on the same theme. Though I agree with the gist of these ideas, I think there might be an unintended side-effect that could worsen the global climate. Consider just oil. There’s a vast amount of oil still in the ground. It won’t stay in the ground; someone is going to buy it and use it. Whenever anyone uses oil, some pollutants will escape. So the only question is how much of these pollutants will spoil our environment. Will it be big plumes of smoke from Chinese and Indian cars? Or will it be smaller puffs of pollutants from relatively cleaner American and European cars? If Friedman and Gore succeed in reducing America’s use of oil, the price of oil will drop dramatically; therefore, China and India will face no economic pressure to switch to more expensive, cleaner fuels. They will gobble up all that oil and spew out more pollutants than comparable American cars. Ironically, reducing America’s dependence on oil will actually increase car pollution and, therefore, global climate change.
I can think of two crazy solutions. One: subsidize gasoline in the US and require car makers to vastly reduce emissions. This will drive up the global price of oil to astronomical levels, forcing all other countries to switch to alternative fuels. While we drive around in ultra-clean 10mpg SUVs, everyone else will take a clean electric bus to work. Second: go ahead and switch to clean energy technology in the US. To coerce other countries to do the same, raise tariffs on their imports as a kind of global carbon tax. With that tariff income, subsidize (or give away free) clean energy technology to all other countries. As they use more clean tech, tariffs on their products go down. Basically, we’re using our vast economic power to impose a carbon tax on the world and bribe reluctant countries to move to clean energy tech. Both of these crazy ideas will reduce global carbon emissions, which is the whole point, right? Someone else will have to handle the politics.