If I'm understanding this correctly, the standard argument for the free market is that natural market efficiencies will solve all our problems. If oil becomes scarce, its price will go up and both investors and consumers will turn to alternative technologies.
The problem here, though, is that coal is very cheap -- but also very dirty. So in this case, the free market is not going to save us from pollution and global warming.
As someone mentioned upthread, that leaves us with three solutions:
1. The government simply imposes restrictions on carbon emissions. Simple and direct but it doesn't actually do anything to solve the problem. It would be likely to drive up energy costs without providing any alternatives.
2. The government promotes the development of alternative technologies through financial incentives. This has the advantage of addressing possible solutions but it doesn't do anything to rein in the current problem.
3. Create a cockamamie artificial "free market" in cap-and-trade derivatives, which does little to address the problem and nothing to provide solutions.
The free market types, of course, hate #1 and love #3. They're also willing to accept #2 to a degree, since it would mean government seed money going to private companies -- but they're really not thrilled about the potential for backyard generation of solar or wind power, which would cut the major energy firms out of the picture. They're much more enthusiastic about the idea of "carbon sequestration," which would not only keep the coal companies in business but would add another layer of expensive technology to current methods of power generation, thus perpetuating a heavily centralized and capital-dependent system.
But the real dirty secret here is that this argument isn't actually about energy or pollution or global warming. It's about the fact that the free market has failed to solve the most pressing problem of our time, thus invalidating its central claim to be the ultimate answer to everything -- and making the brutality and injustice that it creates along the way a lot more suspect.
Sure, this silly cap-and-trade system has the potential for helping a small number of wealthy people to become even richer, while screwing over everybody else and doing nothing to address the actual problem. But that's just a side benefit. Its real purpose is to continue propping up the rotting structure of capitalism for another generation.
And I use the word "rotting" quite deliberately -- not in the sense that a 1930s socialist might have thrown it out as an insult, but in the sense that capitalism itself has now become a shambling zombie, or perhaps an immortal vampire. It has less and less connection to the provision of actual things that people need but is merely a disintegrating remnant of what it once was, maintaining its artifical existence by feeding on the blood and brains of the living. And cap-and-trade is just one more sign of that ongoing decay.
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