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A Week is a Long Time in (Environmental) Politics



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This wise adage of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson continues to hold true. As scientist Roy Spencer points out, the last week has seen a number of interesting developments on the global warming frontlines:

  • The exposure of the inadequacy of NASA’s quality control with respect to recent US annual temperatures
  • Documentary evidence of distorting influences on US temperature monitoring stations
  • Peer-reviewed research demonstrating the existence of a natural negative feedback mechanism that climate models treat as positive
  • The failure of yet another exposure of the supposedly “well-funded denial machine”
  • The emergence of more “skeptical” scientists and meteorologists
  • The promise of more to come

We can now add to this a blockbuster study from one of the doyens of climate economics, Yale’s William Nordhaus. His 253 page extravaganza (pdf link) finds that the cost of unabated global warming will be about $22 trillion to the world. So what about the plans to stop it? Well…

First, the [UK Treasury’s] Stern proposal for rapid deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would reduce the future damage from global warming by $13 trillion, but at a cost of $27 trillion dollars. That’s not a good deal. For an even worse deal, the DICE-2007 model estimates that the Gore proposal would reduce climate change damages by $12 trillion, but at a cost of nearly $34 trillion. As Nordhaus notes, both proposals imply carbon taxes rising to around $300 per ton carbon in the next two decades, and to the $600-$800 per ton range by 2050. A $700 carbon tax would increase the price of coal-fired electricity in the U.S. by about 150 percent, and would impose a tax bill of $1.2 trillion on the U.S. economy.

In addition, scenarios which attempt to keep the future average temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius and concentrations below 1.5-times pre-industrial atmospheric concentrations are also not cost-effective. The DICE-2007 model calculates that both would cost more than $27 trillion in abatement costs and provide only about $13 trillion in reduced damages.

Now, Nordhaus proposes a small, globally-harmonized carbon tax as the best way to avoid both climate damages and high abatement costs, reducing damages by about $5.5 trillion at a cost of $2 trillion. However, as far as I can see, and I haven’t slogged through the entire report yet, Nordhaus does not consider an alternative approach that aims at reducing damages by deregulation and resiliency. this approach is admirably summed up by Professor Julian Morris of the University of Buckingham in an op/ed that ran in the Wall Street Journal this week (and archived here for those without a subscription):

In the short term, though, the main response to climate change must be adaptation. That is because most of the problems associated with climate change are extensions of problems that we already face today — from malaria and water-borne diseases to flooding and crop failure. If we could tackle those problems now, reducing their severity, incidence and consequences, then they would be also less of a problem in the future, with or without climate change.

By adaptation, economists generally do not mean government mega-projects, such as dams and the like. Rather, they mean enabling people more effectively to address the problems they face. This is especially so for the poor, who suffer the most from the vagaries of the weather — they are least adapted to the current climate.

For the poor, the best adaptation strategy is to become wealthier and to diversify away from subsistence agriculture. Then they would be able to afford to pump and purify water — avoiding the water-borne diseases that today kill around two million children. They’d be able to afford clean energy (even if it is produced in coal-fired power stations), thereby avoiding the noxious fumes that result from burning wood, dung and paraffin in poorly ventilated fires, which currently leads to over a million deaths a year from respiratory infections. And they’d be able to afford sturdier houses with better drainage and air conditioning, keeping them away from animals and stagnant water, and keeping out mosquitoes and malaria — which currently kills around two million a year. But none of this will come about without a great deal of economic growth, which is unlikely to take place if Kyoto-style policies are implemented.

It may well be that such an approach will deliver even better positive results than Prof. Nordhaus’ carbon tax. Given that Prof. Nordhaus’ work clearly demonstrates the positive harm alarmist policies will have on the world, even with global warming effects, it is time to put those decisively off the table forever, and start to analyze the effects of adaptation as opposed to demand-side interventions.

The last week should have changed the climate debate decisively. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen.



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