The Corner

Energy & Environment

Adding Economic Catastrophism to Climate Catastrophism Does Not Help

I recommend anyone interested in the climate debate read this column by Ryan Cooper at The Week for an illustration of how quickly premonitions of climate catastrophe can become muddled. Cooper has previously warned that climate change, left unchecked, “would quite literally threaten the existence of the United States as an organized community (and, needless to say, kill billions in poorer nations)” and that “hardcore climate radicalism must become an ironclad [Democratic] party commitment.” Here, he responds to my arguments that the projected costs of climate change are manageable and catastrophism like his unwarranted.

Cooper writes that we should not trust that economic growth and technological progress will allow us to cope with the effects of climate change because “if we are talking risk assessment, any future economic projections are on much shakier epistemological grounds than climactic ones.” Economic models assume continued growth, but “it could be that we’ll simply hit an insurmountable technological bottleneck in a decade or two and be stuck there forever.”

Cooper immediately disclaims this argument, saying “I don’t think that will happen,” that “a total stop does seem implausible,” and that “stagnant growth and low innovation reflects inequality and monopolization more than a failure of technological discovery.” But nevertheless, “it sure does not look good in terms of glibly hanging the human future on trillions of imagined future dollars. And at a bare minimum, there is no possible justification for leaning on such economic projections while discarding equally uncertain but possible disaster scenarios.”

Let’s try to untangle this. The flow of the argument is:

A: “Climate change will be a catastrophe that kills billions.”

B: “Actually, the costs look manageable given the expected rate of human progress.”

A: “That’s only true if human progress continues; what if it halts? I don’t think it will. But it could. So much uncertainty.”

Cooper seems to agree with me (and just about everyone else) that global economic growth is likely to continue this century. And he doesn’t explain how, in the context of continued growth, climate change would be unmanageable. It would follow, then, that he expects climate change to be manageable.

But he also wants us to consider the possibility that economic progress could stop — not only that the developed world stops growing, but also that the developing world stops catching up through adoption of existing technology. And in that case, climate change would be really bad. Of course, another thing that would be really bad is the halting of human progress. Worrying about climate change in a zero-growth world is like worrying about the difficulty of achieving universal health insurance coverage in the midst of a second U.S. civil war. Sure, that would be a problem. Just maybe not the one to focus on.

There’s also the awkward detail that forecasts of rising fossil-fuel emissions, and thus rising climate risks, themselves rely on continued growth. Cooper is describing a contorted scenario where the growth exists for purposes of creating the climate change but not for purposes of coping with it.

If climate catastrophism really rests on a fear of civilizational stagnation, that rather limits its applicability. I’d happily concede that the human condition after decades without progress will be quite poor and that we should avoid such a fate at all costs. (Climate policy, of course, is not the way to tackle that particular problem.)

Something tells me Cooper would not in turn concede that if growth continues then his fears are unfounded. But in that case, he needs a new argument.

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