Galbraith on Global Warming and Planning

Tom Shipka

The mobilization for World War II by the United States shows government planning at its best. During a four-year period the United States recruited, trained, and deployed eleven million soldiers; commissioned the production of countless aircraft, seacraft, trucks, jeeps, tanks, bombs, guns, and bullets; kept inflation low; and achieved full employment. (1) The result was victory over the Axis powers. By contrast, the devastation in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina shows government planning at its worst. In New Orleans the levees were structurally flawed; residents remained in low-lying areas of the city at great risk; and the evacuation plan ignored those without automobiles. The result was that thousands died, hundreds of thousands fled, most permanently, and New Orleans today is "largely a ruin." (2)

These are the sentiments of James K. Galbraith, an economist, in his most recent book, The Predator State. In this book Galbraith gives us both a devastating critique of free market economics and a plea for a recommitment by government to planning. Galbraith argues that in a "properly designed (economic) system, planning and markets do not contradict each other" and "are not mutually exclusive." (3) Markets, he says, "distribute today's production to consumers...reasonably well" but are not equipped to deal with "the use of today's resources to meet tomorrow's needs" (4) because markets do not think ahead. (5) Thus, the interests of future generations must be provided for through government planning. (6)

Although Galbraith sees a need for effective planning by government in several areas, the one which he addresses with a special sense of urgency is global warming. Galbraith cites a 2007 report on this subject by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report, he says, is a wake up call to the governments of the world to take individual and joint action on a par with the U.S. mobilization for World War II to prevent unprecedented global disaster. (7) According to this report, failure to act will cause carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to reach levels within the next three generations that will cause the collapse of ice sheets in the West Antarctic and Greenland. If and when half these ice sheets melt, sea levels will rise by twenty feet around the world resulting in the loss due to flooding of "every beach, every low-lying island, every coastal marsh, and nearly every coastal city on the face of the globe, as well as the ports, airports, power plants, refineries, and other seaside infrastructure..." (8) To reduce greenhouse emissions, Galbraith argues, we will have to get gasoline out of cars and coal out of power plants and replace them with new, clean energy. (9) The unfettered market will do nothing to help us. Indeed, governments will have to take control of the sources and uses of energy from private corporations. (10) "Either the problem of climate change will be planned out, by a public authority acting with public power," Galbraith writes, "or it will be planned away, by private corporations whose priorities lie in selling coal, oil, and gas-burning cars." (11)

The science behind Galbraith's proposal on climate change is well-founded, despite the naysayers. Whether the more than six billion people across the world and their political leaders have the intelligence, responsibility, and courage to act in time, however, is another question altogether.


  1. See James K. Galbraith, The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, p. 172. References in footnotes are to this book. Galbraith is the son of John Kenneth Galbraith, famous Harvard economist and U.S. Ambassador to India, who died in 2006.
  2. Pages 168-169.
  3. Pages 164-165.
  4. Page 165.
  5. Page 167.
  6. Pages 166-167. Galbraith cites two inherent market flaws: "Even if the market is perfectly efficient, it still suffers from two ineradicable defects. The first relates to the distribution of income and power: the market conveys signals only in proportion to the purchasing power of the individuals transmitting them. The poor do not matter to the market. The second relates to representation: people not yet born do not turn up at the stores. They send no market signals at all." (p. 166)
  7. The report is Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, November 17, 2007. Galbraith opines that "In the IPCC, we can come as close as humanity has ever known to a trusted voice on a scientific matter." (Page 171)
  8. Page 170.
  9. Page 171.
  10. Page 170.
  11. Page 175.

© 2008 Tom Shipka