Yes, But How Does Climate Change Make You Feel?

by Oren Cass

I wrote in the new issue of the magazine about the fear that Donald Trump’s election may have, in the words of Paul Krugman, “killed the planet” by reversing President Obama’s climate agenda. One obvious absurdity in such a claim is the assumption that an Obama agenda was making extraordinary progress that Trump’s policies will unwind. Commentators are already acknowledging that this is not true.

But keep your eye on the question of “so what.” Even if one could hold Trump accountable for whatever climate change occurs, how high is the cost likely to be? Because one prominent side of that debate (Trump included) has long refused to acknowledge any costs at all, the field has been left open for activists to assert that anyone who takes climate change seriously should believe it will be literally the end of the world. But the mainstream scientific and economic literature does not support such catastrophic claims, and people are starting to notice.

According to the highest-cost estimate used in the Obama administration’s own “Social Cost of Carbon” analysis, for instance, the entire cost of climate change through the year 2100 comes down to a slowing of annual economic growth by much less than one-tenth of one percentage point. The climate-change-afflicted world of the future would be vastly more prosperous than the world of today. Almost any policy issue can claim effects of a comparable magnitude. (For more detail, I’ve written a primer on “Climate Costs in Context” for the Manhattan Institute that reviews just how modest the mainstream cost estimates really are.)

In the past, scientists, activists, and politicians have all pledged obedience to the outputs of climate models. Facing model output that does not support their narrative, the response is a rejection of the models. Nature headlined a commentary by Nicholas Stern, lead author of the United Kingdom’s climate assessment, “Economics: Current Climate Models Are Grossly Misleading.” Vox headlined its “explanation” of the quandary by David Roberts, “Economists Agree: Economic Models Underestimate Climate Change.”

Thus, the search is underway for new models to better vindicate promises of climate catastrophe. Because models are still not producing costs high enough to justify the action he believes necessary, Stern writes: “The next [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report needs to be based on a much more robust body of economics literature, which we must create now. It could make a crucial difference.”

Roberts, amusingly, suggests the solution of incorporating surveys of “expert opinion” to inform “better, more representative modeling.” In other words, if substantive research in the field is not confirming people’s feelings about climate change, it is the research rather than the feelings that should change. And what better way to accomplish that goal than by simply using the feelings instead of analysis as the input?

Inevitably, a “robust” new literature will emerge, teeming with models reverse-engineered to confirm pre-existing premonitions of doom. When it does, spare a thought for the earlier models created in pursuit of useful knowledge, whose verdicts were not nearly so dismal.

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