Greening the Global Economy

By Robert Pollin, The MIT Press, 2015,176 pages; ISBN: 978-0262028233, $22.95

Let me start with an admission. I am not a trained economist, nor am I well versed in the literature of environmental economics. Yet, as a historian of science with a joint appointment in the Physics and Astronomy Department and the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) Program at Vassar College, I often find myself navigating topics in my courses that take me away from my native expertise. In order to help set a solid foundation for STS class discussions, I’m always on the lookout for well written texts that put forward evidence-based arguments that can help students engage deeply and thoughtfully with complex topics. Robert Pollin’s Greening the Global Economy argues that business as usual strategies regarding our energy policies are detrimental to our future. As a result, a significant re-envisioning of our global energy strategies and infrastructure will be necessary to stem anthropomorphic contributions to climate change. While this is by no means a novel argument, Pollin’s latest contribution to the climate change debate is refreshing and compelling. A Distinguished Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Pollin effectively presents his work over the past decade analyzing and forecasting the costs and benefits of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Oftentimes climate change debates seem to be polarized around zero sum games. If we want to stop global warming, we need to sacrifice our current standard of living and reduce our carbon footprint. This is called a “de-growth” argument. Using convincing economic models and some rhetorical judo, Pollin’s argument challenges this zero sum assumption and proposes an alternative framework. Instead of arguing for the inevitability of de-growth to ensure humanity’s future, Pollin argues boldly that a transition to a green economy over the next twenty years will actually stabilize global climate and make us more prosperous by “expanding human well-being” (p. 159).

Greening the Global Economy begins with a statement of the problem. In its latest report, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that in order to stabilize the global average temperature, total greenhouse gas emissions will need to be reduced by 40% before 2035 and by 80% before 2050. With current global emissions (mostly CO2) around 45 billion metric tons per year and growing, we are nowhere near on-track to meet these goals. Pollin argues that something must change from business as usual if we want to stem global warming. The rest of the book is dedicated to building out a plan that will allow a reduction of the global CO2 emissions in line with the IPCC twenty-year target while simultaneously creating jobs and reducing global poverty. Pollin’s plan calls for a massive “global GDP clean energy investment project” (p. 19) that will “increase global investments every year in energy efficiency and clean renewables by 1.5 percent of global GDP …and cut oil, coal, and natural gas consumption by 33 percent” (p. 92).

In Chapters 2-4 Pollin describes the current energy paradigm and what we would need to do to transform it. First he examines the environmental, economic, and political problems associated with switching over to nuclear power, expanding our reliance on natural gas, and investing in new technologies that allow for carbon capture and sequestration. Then Pollin outlines the two prongs advocated in his clean investment project: energy efficiency and clean renewables. In Chapter 5 Pollin finally gets to the crux of his economic forecasting model. He discusses the basic assumptions of his model and the results of its projections. In this chapter Pollin is walking a bit of a tightrope by including enough quantitative analysis to satisfy economists while not inundating the economic lay person in a sea of data. For readers interested in more details, Pollin takes care to include an expanded discussion of his model in an appendix.

In Chapters 6-8, Pollin justifies his proposed massive GDP investments, totaling $30 trillion over twenty years, that will allow for an expansion of energy efficiency and a burgeoning of the clean energy renewables sector. Apart from stabilizing global temperatures, Pollin’s investment plan forecasts a net increase in job opportunities around the world. While he is cognizant of the hardships the fossil fuel sector will encounter due to his investment plan, he claims these difficulties can be overcome with proactive programs that will help transition workers into new thriving economic industries. In Chapter 7 Pollin directly challenges the strategy of economic contraction or de-growth as a way to achieve the IPCC emission reduction goals. He shows how this approach will result in global economic hardship and still leave us short of the 40% reductions needed by 2035. Finally, Pollin concludes his argument for the global clean energy investment project by discussing the political will and ethical standards necessary for rolling his proposal out successfully and fairly.

Pollin’s approach to discussing climate change seems sensible and grounded in rigorous analysis. He succeeds in reframing the zero sum climate debate and offering a promising alternative. While I have questions about assumptions within his model and how he projects the effects of technological innovation over the next 20-40 years, he is clearly aware of the pitfalls and highly contingent nature of economic forecasting. At one point he even quotes Ezra Solomon stating “the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable” (p, 62). Ultimately, Pollin suggests that even if all the climate change models are wrong and the economic forecasts fail to accurately predict the future, we can justify his global clean energy investment project by thinking about it as humanity purchasing an affordable catastrophic insurance policy. Pollin’s outlook on the power of his global investment strategy may be too optimistic for some, but at least he has given us a rationally constructed and accessible model to grapple with and critique. I, for one, will be using Greening the Global Economyin my next STS seminar.

Jose G. Perillan
Assistant Professor, Physics and STS,Vassar College

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.