The Rich Are Rich Defense

Conn Carroll /

UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman offers up a fascinating defense of Hollywood celebrities who jet around the around the world to their many huge homes while also denouncing the evils of global warming. Kleiman writes:

Rich people use more goods and services than poor people. That’s what “rich” means. Of course multi-millionaires have larger gross GHG footprints than you and I do. So what? If Tierney wants to work on decreasing income gradients, I’m all for it. But of course he’s not. He just hates the idea that some rich people use their wealth to promote ideas he dislikes.

Wow. You don’t see the “rich people should be allowed to pollute more because they are rich” defense too often, but there it is. Kleiman quickly tries to backtrack and claim he’s all for fighting income inequality, but inequality is not the issue. China and India are bringing massive numbers of coal power plants online so they can all fly jets like Brad Pitt. They are doing it so their countries have enough energy to power an economy to feed their people and lift them out of poverty. Developing countries know the US emits much more carbon then they do, and having Kleiman assure them that emitting tons of carbon is what rich nations do because they are rich is not going to change their behavior.

Megan McCardle does an ample job of batting away Kleiman’s faith in carbon offsets:

Offsets are not the moral equivalent of indulgences–but they are just about as effective. I have no doubt that many who use them devoutly believe that they work, but I don’t think many of them care to investigate the matter too closely. In some sense it’s a technical question, but as far as I can tell, that technical question is not solveable.

Tree planting is risible unless you commit to keep the land planted forever. Shutting down third world pollution creates a rich market in polluting factories, and also does a lot of things that would have been done anyway. Other projects are even more questionable. None of them, as far as I can tell, attempt to account for rebound effects. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but as far as I can see any cap and trade system that isn’t global, and/or includes offsets, will do (to a first approximation) basically nothing to halt global warming.