Jeff Bezos, the mega-billionaire founder/owner of Amazon, just announced he will give US$10 billion to “fight climate change.” According to CNN, this followed immense pressure from his employees to take action. And, as is inevitable with this issue, as soon as he made the announcement his activist employees declared it wasn’t enough.
“We applaud Jeff Bezos’s philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away,” their group sniffed. “Will Jeff Bezos show us true leadership or will he continue to be complicit in the acceleration of the climate crisis, while supposedly trying to help?”
It is never enough with climate activists. Bezos’s US$10 billion is a staggering sum. But it’s also a drop in the bucket compared to what governments have spent over the past two decades on the climate issue. Yet activists keep complaining governments aren’t doing anything, either.
One begins to suspect they are not being up front about what they really want. Politically minded observers might conclude activists do not care about the climate per se but instead want to impose a big-government central planning regime — for which the supposed climate emergency is merely a pretext. Any response to their demands that leaves the market system intact is therefore inadequate.
So where should Bezos direct his money? If he really wants to make the world a better place, he should fund the invention of a low-cost carbon scrubber. If ever someone could invent a device that filters carbon dioxide out of a smokestack or tailpipe and turns it into a stable solid that can be cheaply disposed of or even used for another purpose, all for under $5 or $10 per tonne, the entire climate change issue would vanish.
Such a scrubber would mean we could carry on using fossil fuels while decoupling them from greenhouse gas emissions. We would continue getting all the benefits of cheap fossil energy without any climate side-effects. This is what we did with sulphur dioxide. The invention of sulphur scrubbers meant we could keep enjoying the benefits of fossil energy without the harm of acid rain. Now let’s do the same with carbon dioxide.
The only reason climate change is such a big, intractable worldwide issue is precisely that we cannot currently decouple fossil fuel use from carbon dioxide emissions, so trying to achieve deep emission reductions means imposing harsh costs on the world economy. But if carbon dioxide could be cheaply reduced while we continued to burn fossil fuels, that problem would be resolved.
Once you realize this, you can then complete the thought-experiment by posing the question: Who would be the saddest people in the world if a cheap carbon-scrubber were invented? Answer: climate activists. They would almost certainly be bitterly crestfallen if ever an inexpensive technological fix resolved the climate issue. I say this because they so often give the impression their real motivation is not concern about the climate but rather a strange abhorrence of the modern world. The giveaway is their angry reaction to any information showing climate change isn’t a crisis — even though they of all people should be most cheered when such research appears.
Here is a useful litmus test for whether you or someone you know is an environmentally conscious person who wants to take a responsible stance on the climate issue. Suppose Bezos funds a project that does invent a cheap carbon-scrubber and he gives away the technology so that overnight the need for climate policy vanishes (other than a requirement to use the scrubber). Our entire apparatus of climate policy would then become unnecessary. Ethanol mandates, electric vehicle subsidies, energy efficiency regulations, pipeline bans, the coal phaseout, natural gas bans for new homes, the oilsands emissions cap, et cetera — all of it could be eliminated and carbon dioxide emissions would plummet nonetheless. The Paris treaty would be redundant. There would be no more “conferences of the parties,” no more UN summits, and an end to the vast climate bureaucracies around the world — all of it replaced by quick, cheap and easy emission reductions. The litmus question: Would that strike you as wonderful news or leave you bereft, your purpose in life lost?
“Wonderful news” is the correct answer. If you got it wrong, please stop blocking roads and railways and get some psychological help.
Ross McKitrick is a professor of economics at the University of Guelph.