Given the emotional reactions that Donald Trump and climate change each trigger separately, they are especially combustible when combined.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman worries that Trump’s election “may have killed the planet.” Activist Bill McKibben calls Trump’s plan to reverse the Obama climate agenda by approving the Keystone XL pipeline and other fossil-fuel projects, rescinding the Clean Power Plan, and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement “the biggest, most against-the-odds and most irrevocable bet any president has ever made about anything.” And let’s not forget “Zach,” the Democratic National Committee staffer who reportedly stormed out of a post-election meeting after saying, “I am going to die from climate change.”
A Trump presidency raises many serious and reasonable worries. But the fear that it will cause climate change to kill the planet, or even poor Zach, should not be among them. The most authoritative scientific and economic analyses estimate that even if climate change proceeds unmitigated for the next hundred years, the cost will be real but manageable. Even if President Trump reverses President Obama’s efforts, the marginal effect on future climate change will be minimal because Obama’s efforts were so inconsequential.
The Obama administration’s own “Social Cost of Carbon” analysis, developed to demonstrate the enormous cost of climate change (and thus the enormous benefit of reducing carbon dioxide emissions), provides a perfect illustration. The analysis synthesized multiple efforts to quantify in economic terms the projected effects of climate change on everything from agriculture to public health to sea levels, looking all the way ahead to the year 2100. But how much worse off than today did it find the world will be by century’s end with no efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions?
The world will be at least five times wealthier. Zach might even live to see it.
The Obama administration used three economic models to reach this conclusion, but let’s consider the one with the highest estimates for future climate costs: the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) model, developed by William Nordhaus at Yale University. DICE estimates that global GDP in 2100 without climate change would be $510 trillion. That’s 575 percent higher than in 2015. The cost of climate change, the model estimates, will amount to almost 4 percent of GDP in that year. But the remaining GDP of $490 trillion is still 550 percent larger than today’s GDP.
DICE assumes the average annual growth of global GDP will be 2.27 percent if there is no climate change. With climate change, that rate falls to 2.22 percent; at no point does climate change shave even one-tenth of one point off growth. By 2103, the climate-change-afflicted world surpasses the prosperity of the not-warming 2100.
Zach might take issue with DICE’s underlying scientific and economic assumptions, yet the model produces estimates of cost due to climate change that are much higher than those of the PAGE and FUND models, which are also used in “The Social Cost of Carbon” analysis. Certainly, all three models suffer from an inability to assign economic value to every possible form of climate damage. But these models and methodologies are not the choice of partisans hoping to downplay the issue; they are the ones endorsed by an Obama administration intent on demonstrating large benefits from climate action. And their forecasts bear no resemblance to the frequently issued prophecies of doom.
What the models do show is that the threat of climate change cannot compete with the power of compounding economic growth over a century-long timescale. In concrete terms, a GDP increase of 500–600 percent implies a world in which most of the population is approaching the West’s current standard of living while the West advances as well. Transformations in infrastructure, public health, and food and water systems will greatly improve society’s resilience against potential climate costs. Against that backdrop, the exact cost of climate change is beside the point. Whether annual cost in 2100 equals 4 percent of that year’s GDP or 14 percent, the world in 2100 would be vastly wealthier than it is today. The cost is real, and represents a tragic drain on resources, but it sits comfortably within the margin of the costs and benefits associated with many policy choices when compounded for so many decades.
Once upon a time, “Obey the models” was a central demand of the climate movement. Faced with actual model output of costs that fail to support the movement’s apocalyptic rhetoric, the demand is now to ignore the models and focus instead on hypothetical worst cases. For instance, Zach has probably been reading the latest outlier papers that warn of sudden collapses in ice sheets leading to the inundation of coastal cities. But the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the gold-standard synthesis of the latest science — estimates that climate change will cause sea levels to rise by less than two feet this century.
Other scenarios, such as the one used by Harvard economist Martin Weitzman to suggest that climate change poses nearly infinite risk, emphasize “runaway” climate change in which positive feedback loops could make the earth’s temperature spiral out of control long after 2100. But cost forecasts for 2200 or 2300 are difficult to credit and almost impossible to weigh against the hypothetical state of human society so many generations hence.
Regardless of whether one’s expectations are apocalyptic, the magnitude of future climate change is only half the story. Of equal importance, attributing blame to the incoming Trump administration requires some demonstration that Trump will place the world on a significantly higher trajectory of greenhouse-gas emissions than another president would have. But the climate agenda that Trump intends to unravel is a failure by that standard already. Because President Obama’s policies have achieved no meaningful progress, reversing them cannot have any significant cost.
Domestically, even the EPA has acknowledged that its Clean Power Plan will not substantially influence future temperatures. The State Department has said the same about blocking the Keystone XL pipeline. The purported value of these policies was to display international “leadership.” But the global picture is no better. Even with U.S. “leadership,” the commitments other countries made under last year’s “landmark” Paris agreement look almost identical to the paths those countries were already on.
China, for instance, pledged to reach “peak” greenhouse-gas emissions “around 2030,” but prior analysis suggested that China’s emissions would peak in 2030 anyway. India promised only to reduce its level of emissions per unit of GDP, which was already declining at twice the rate it pledged to achieve going forward. Pakistan “committed to reduce its emissions after reaching peak levels to the extent possible,” offering nothing but a definition of the word “peak.” When Secretary of State John Kerry said, “One hundred eighty-six nations in the world came together to submit a plan, all of them reducing their emissions,” those were the kinds of non-committal commitments he was hawking.
Adding together a lot of nothings produces nothing; therefore the Paris agreement’s impact is at best a few tenths of a degree Celsius. MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, for instance, projected warming by 2100 of 3.9 degrees Celsius without the Paris agreement and 3.7 degrees with it.
Proponents of the agreement argue that it will nonetheless unleash clean-energy investment. Instead, investment has plummeted. Over the first three quarters of 2016, global clean-energy investment is down 29 percent relative to 2015. Investment in the third quarter of 2016 was 43 percent lower than in the third quarter of 2015, having fallen to its lowest level since the George W. Bush administration.
Bizarrely, some analysts have reversed course about the need for U.S. “leadership” and now argue that if the United States abandons the Paris agreement, we will be left behind while the world continues with climate action. Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Atlantic, “China, Europe, Brazil, India, and other countries will continue to move ahead with the climate commitments they made under Paris no matter what the next president does, because these commitments are in their own national interest.”
That only confirms the weakness of the Paris agreement and the futility of President Obama’s climate agenda. If every nation is still just pursuing its national interest, what has American “leadership” accomplished? And what could be lost if Trump pursued a different agenda?
Those claiming sudden panic would have us believe the world was so close to solving this climate-change thing until Donald Trump came along. But in fact, the world was still on square one.
That might suggest that the next administration’s policy will be more important than ever. But fears that the next four years represent “Game Over” for the climate are only the latest repeat of Al Gore’s warning in 2006 that the world would reach a point of no return within ten years; former IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri’s warning in 2007 that “if there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late”; NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s warning in 2009 that President Obama “has four years to save Earth”; and U.N. Foundation president Tim Wirth’s warning in 2012 that Obama’s second term was “the last window of opportunity.” Nor is there any evidence a President Hillary Clinton would have improved on Obama’s record.
Conversely, while Trump embarrasses himself and the country by calling climate change a “hoax,” his climate policies mirror those outlined by his more conventional GOP primary opponents in 2016 and by GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Hyperbolic warnings about Trump that emphasize climate are not really about Trump at all — they are about Democrats losing to Republicans. Paul Krugman reflected the morning after the election on “the immense damage Trump will surely do, to climate above all.” The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart listed climate change as the first “enormous danger” posed by Trump that might justify the Electoral College in overriding the election’s outcome and choosing Clinton. They should save their extreme rhetoric about Trump for the facets of Trump that are in fact extreme.
As for Zach and the activists who can think only of climate? They should be relieved that Trump’s election will prevent them from ever being held accountable for the costly and ineffective policies they pursued. They might also be relieved to learn that — even with no climate policy at all — the world will continue to grow healthier and wealthier.
– Mr. Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of the new report “Climate Costs in Context.”