Global Warming and the "Open Frontier":

In today's W$J, Brian Carney reports (link for subscribers) from a Venice conference on the difference between American and European perspectives on the challenge of climate change policy.

The story according to which politically connected industries block economic developments that would be beneficial overall but redound to the detriment of the big players is one expounded mostly by cranks in the U.S., but is commonly accepted in Europe. This results from the fact that in Europe, this kind of thing happens. Market signals on employment, wages and production are all attenuated by government's heavy hand to a much greater extent than they are in the U.S. Stagnation in Europe has many faces, but one of the most important is the stasis of the corporate constellation: Most European economies are dominated by the same large companies that ruled the roost decades ago, while in the U.S., many of our largest and most successful companies didn't exist a generation ago.

This comparison is not new. But its relevance to the global warming debate is not well-understood. As a former Carter administration official at the conference put it, "America is, psychologically, an open-frontier society. Europe's frontier closed a millennium ago." In other words, the characteristic American response to, say, climate change, is to believe that technologies— and even companies—that do not now exist will crop up to solve the problem, assuming there is a problem. The characteristic European response, as exemplified by the German conspiracy theorist in Venice, is to focus on how to get the businesses to behave "better."

The open frontier view was captured by a Silicon Valley representative in the room. He stood up to announce that "clean tech" would be to this decade what high-tech was to the 1990s. The companies that would revolutionize our energy usage, he claimed, were now being funded by venture capitalists, and the Ciscos, Microsofts and Googles of the next decade would be the companies that solved the energy puzzle. We hadn't heard of any of them now, he insisted, but they would be huge. Is he right? Maybe. Who cares? It's his money, and the money of his colleagues in the Valley. The point is, if there's a conspiracy to keep revolutionary clean technology down, he didn't get the memo. The notion that this is simply a trans-Atlantic divide can easily be overstated. There are statist Americans and entrepreneurial Europeans. But the divide between the open-frontier camp and the closed-frontier camp is very real, and of the utmost importance to the global warming debate.