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Economics supports immediate action on global warming

Posted on 8 January 2015 by dana1981

Lately there seems to have been a shift away from climate science denial, toward arguments downplaying the costs of human-caused climate change. Specifically, some economists publishing reports for Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center have argued that we should focus our efforts more on adapting to climate impacts and on other issues, rather than on cutting carbon pollution and slowing global warming.

According to the Climate Action Tracker, current international climate policies will result in a global surface warming of about 4°C. If we act on all conditional pledges, including those recently made by China and the USA, we’ll see about 3°C warming. This (3–4°C) is the range of global warming that the Copenhagen Consensus Center claims would be the most optimal for the global economy.

One might ask, what sorts of climate impacts would we expect to see as a result of this much global warming? Research indicates that the consequences would be quite severe. For example, widespread coral mortality would occur, and 40–70% of global species would be at risk of extinction. Glacier retreats would threaten water supplies in Central Asia and South America. Sea level rise of 1 meter or more would be expected by 2100, with the possibility of destabilization of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which would cause much more sea level rise and flooding of coastal communities.

How can we reconcile such serious climate impacts with the argument that they represent the most economically optimal scenario? Part of the answer lies in dollar signs. For example, economists only consider the value of the Great Barrier Reef in terms of its tourism and fishing dollar values. If a species goes extinct, the cost is only measured in terms of its dollar value for human economies.

If we care only about economic costs, modeling suggests that the optimal pathway would involve further global warming of about 2°C, or close to 3°C above pre-industrial temperatures. That’s higher than the international target of 2°C, but it also represents significant risks. If a significant fraction of global species go extinct, will that really have such a minimal impact on our society? And do we really value those species and overall biodiversity so little?

While economic strength is important, it’s not the only thing humans value. It’s also not the only consideration in deciding how much global warming we can live with. We have to consider all the risks from the resulting climate changes. Climate modeling has uncertainties, and economic modeling has even bigger ones. Climate uncertainty is not our friend; more uncertainty translates into more urgency to prevent the dangerous potential climate change consequences.

As glaciologist Lonnie Thompson famously said of climate change,

The only question is how much we will mitigate, adapt, and suffer.

There will be some combination of mitigation costs and adaptation costs to minimize the suffering resulting from climate change. Limiting global warming to even the very risky 3°C level would require that we follow through with all current conditional climate pledges, and continue along that pathway of cutting carbon pollution. Mitigating climate risks further and preserving biodiversity would require even more action.

The good news is that these economists agree that immediate climate policies, such as carbon taxes, are needed. The latest report from the Copenhagen Consensus Center notes, 

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Some good points here, but conventional Neo-Classical economics is not going to get us there--in fact, it is precisely what we have to jettison as soon as possible if we are going to start the process of building a civilization that is not set on destroying the living planet and the systems that support it.

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  2. It is even incorrect to claim that 'all is OK as long as an honest thorough economic assessment shows that the costs a future generation faces trying to adapt to climate disruption due to the impacts of previous generations are a match for the benefits obtained by previous generations creating those costs faced by the future generations.'

    And it is laughable that anyone would claim to be able to accurately thoroughly estimate the costs required to adapt to the difficult to predict but rapidly changing climate, especially laughable if that person has been inclined to believe or create claims that any perieved inaccuracy of the current predictions of climate science justifies ignoring the science until it is much better able to exactly predict every future moment of regional climate impact.

    However, those 'laughable' type of people have succeeded in becoming wealthy and powerful because of he ability toget away with unsustainable ad damaging actions. Including the ability to temporaily tempt many people into supporting their laughably irrational but very damaging desired beliefs (particularly at the moment of an election), which is no laughing matter.

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  3. My previous comment presents an 'aspiration' or 'guiding principle' that I am aware can be difficult for some people to clearly understand. Other ways to say my previous point are:

    No person or group of people should try to obtain benefit at the expense of other people. Things need to be getting better for everyone. So any 'future cost' resulting from a current generaton's pursuits of its own benefits is unacceptable. And it is more unacceptable if the benefits in a current generation involve some in the current generation benefiting at the expense of others in the current generation.

    The actions of a current generation must make the future better. It is unacceptable for a current generation to benefit in a way that reduces the value of the future or creates costs or challenges that will be faced in the future. Everyone benefiting needs to be required to also expend their own money and effort to ensure there is no future problem or expense as a result of their actions in pursuit of benefit.

    All people must strive to live in a way that is a sustainable part of the robust diversity of life on this amazing planet.

    All people should be striving to participate in advancing things toward a sustainable better future for all life on this amazing planet. And the ones who don't care to help need to be kept from doing any harm because whatever harm they cause (are able to get away with creating without be required to fully mitigate at their own expense), makes it more difficult for everyone else to do what needs to be done.

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  4. "The actions of a current generation must make the future better."

    No chance of that, at this point.

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  5. Rather than economics, "Ethics supports immediate action on global warming"

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  6. r.pauli,

    I have an MBA (I am also an Engineer, please do not hold either of those against me, I try to not be like the stereotypes).

    The problem with relying on ethics and morals and decency is that those are actually competitive disadvantages in almost all of the popular socio-economic-political systems, particularly the ones with 'more freedom for unethical, immoral, indecent actions to be successful'.

    In my MBA courses we did have a course on Corpoarte Ethics. The not too shocking part of that course was the lack of a significant number of case studies presenting ethical, moral, decent behaviour. The case studies were a diverse variety of examples of the other type of behaviour. And that was simply because unethical, immoral, indecent behaviour can easily be more profitable if it can be gotten away with.

    We also learned about the unsustainable but temporary effectiveness of deliberately deceptive marketing. There is a lot of science behind deceptive marketing. It is not just an art. Some people make a very good living from it (temporarily on each campaign or business venture, but that is all that matters because they only need benefit in their lifetime and they can always move on to the next unsustainable damaging venture).

    So ethics only matter to people who care. Sadly the current socio-economic-political systems (all of them, not just democratic free-market ones), continue to allow unethical actions to succeed which encourages others to try to be similarly successful. It truly is a spiral of activity that never can be expected to lead toward a sustainable better future. Love is the answer, but quoting the likes of John Lennon won't be enough, and certainly won't change the minds of people who really want to get away with unacceptable pursuits of what they want.

    As Naomi Klein's latest book "This Changes Everything" points out, the system needs to be fundamentally changed. I refer to what is required as a Signicant System Update and Reboot. And as fatalistic as this may sound, that change is essential to the future of humanity.

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  7. Somewhat related, The Carbon Brief (blog) has an article on the implications of falling oil and gas prices and how that may affect investment in renewables;


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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Link activated.

  8. Sometimes artists say it best, without words,


    (sorry, that may have to be reformatted)

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Link activated.

    [RH] Link shortened.

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