Global Warming Isn't an Economic 'Win-Win'

Clinton and other Democratic candidates make dealing with climate change seem cost free.

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"This issue of energy and global warming has the promise of creating millions of new jobs in America. It can be a win-win, if we do it right."—Sen. Hillary Clinton, at last night's Democratic debate in South Carolina

And with that, Clinton seemingly stumbled into the classic economic trap known as the Broken Window Fallacy. As described by the French economist Fredric Bastiat, the fallacy imagines some punk kid chucking a rock through a store window. A bad thing, right? Yet a contrarian onlooker offers that the troublemaker may have actually helped the economy because now the storeowner will have to hire a glazier, who will make money replacing the window. Then the glazier will use that money to buy bread from a baker, who then might buy shoes from a cobbler. And the "multiplier effect" goes on and on, creating a more prosperous economy.

But Bastiat points out that such reasoning ignores the hidden costs to the shopkeeper, who was forced to spend money on windows instead of something else that may have had higher value to him or society, like a new suit or investing in a start-up tech firm. As the great economics writer Henry Hazlitt once put it:

The glazier's gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor's loss of business. No new "employment" has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

It is certainly unlikely that spending money on climate change will be the "win-win" free lunch Clinton describes, anymore than natural disasters or wars are economic free lunches, even though they seem to spur economic activity. (Indeed, dealing with climate change is often called the "moral equivalent of war.")

Last year, the British government released a review on the economics of climate change, authored by economist Nicholas Stern. It concluded that we should spend 1 percent of the global economy every year to avoid the worse effects of climate change. Now even if you take Stern's numbers as correct—and many think he overestimates the economic risks of doing nothing—he still advocates spending $700 billion a year on a supposed problem, dough that might have a better return on investment if spent elsewhere.

If climate change "creates" 10 million new jobs over the next decade, who is to say those jobs would not have been created anyway, in the nanotechnology industry or healthcare or business consulting or some industry we have yet to imagine? We may need to spend money to deal with global warming, but to think of it as an actual independent economic gain is a stretch.