Climate Change Trade-Offs

A reader comments on a recent Malkin Award nomination:

I really, really hate that I’m about to defend Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, but I’m not so sure this qualifies as “shrill, hyperbolic, divisive and intemperate right-wing rhetoric.” Short-sighted, rather ignorant, and driven by deeply questionable motives, sure. But at the same time, there’s actually an important point subsumed here (at least as I read it). Attacking carbon emissions with the utmost gusto, at this point in time and with currently existing technology, could well have implications for lifting the global bottom two billion out of energy poverty; and, it would almost certainly create additional cost burdens for individuals in the developed world. Climate impacts will be most acutely felt by those in the bottom socioeconomic rungs; but so too is it going to be harder for folks at the bottom to pay for higher energy costs – wherever they may live – if they’ve got to rely on renewables, or coal with carbon-capture.

So it’s something of a balancing act, I’d argue.

Contra Exxon, this consideration is not a reason not to act, of course; people just need to be clear-eyed about potential trade-offs. Brad Plumer wrote about this with some concern a while back, and he is surely not worthy of a Malkin Award! There’s a legitimate conversation to be had about the future trajectory of human development, the trade-offs between competing goals, and the advantages or disadvantages of the various supply – and demand-side steps we can take to achieve them.

I also understand the context here. Exxon is probably one of the worst corporate actors on climate. Their record and outlook is shameful, and flies in the face of what IEA, the World Bank, and other bodies say we need to be doing. Obviously Tillerson is using this argument as a shield, not in good faith. But just because he can use this argument as an excuse for poor corporate citizenship doesn’t necessarily mean it belongs with the Malkins.