Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Implausible deniability

The new argument making the rounds of conservative think tanks, like the National Center for Policy Analysis, and circulating through assorted sympathetic publications goes something like this: Yes, the planet may be warming up, but no one can be sure of why, and, in any case, it doesn’t matter—let’s stop quibbling about the causes of climate change and concentrate on dealing with the consequences. A recent column in the Wall Street Journal laid out the logic as follows: “The problems associated with climate change (whether man-made or natural) are the same old problems of poverty, disease, and natural hazards like floods, storms, and droughts.” Therefore “money spent directly on these problems is a much surer bet than money spent trying to control a climate change process that we don’t understand.” Sounding an eerily similar note, a column published a few days later in the National Review Online stated, “We can do more to help the poor by combating these problems now than we would by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”
The "new" argument Elizabeth Kolbert describes has antedecents in the likes of Bjorn Lomborg who recently rehearsed it yet again in a letter to New Scientist magazine. I've responded to that, but it doesn't look as if NS will publish my reply. So I am attaching it to this post as a comment. Kolbert continues:
The beauty of this argument is its apparent high-mindedness, and this, of course, is also its danger. Carbon dioxide is a persistent gas—it lasts for about a century—and once released into the atmosphere it is, for all practical purposes, irrecoverable. Since every extra increment of CO2 leads to extra warming, addressing the effects of climate change without dealing with the cause is a bit like trying to treat diabetes with doughnuts.


Caspar Henderson said...

Letter from Caspar Henderson to New Scientist magazine, 4 March (unpublished)

Sir, Bjorn Lomborg says it is better invest in the alleviation of disease and malnutrition, improved water quality and the promotion of free trade than in "large and early" cuts in carbon emissions, citing Copenhagen Consensus to support his case (Investing in the future, 4 March 2005). But he offers a false choice based on unsound foundations.
Early last year The Economist magazine reported that members of the Copenhagen Consensus were now dissenting from its ranking of climate change as the least important global problem (Hoting Up, 4 Feb 2005). "Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland, who voted on the final choices, thinks that presenting climate change at the bottom of the list...is misleading". Robert Mendelsohn, a conservative Yale economist who was an official critic of the climate paper, says that "climate change was set up to fail" by selecting a paper on climate science that was "well out of the mainstream".

Let us set aside such misgivings and look at the case for and against action on climate change solely in terms of an economic model that greatly discounts the net present value of benefits or disbenefits several decades hence.

It is not considered fanciful to say that a rise in global mean temperature of 4.5 degrees C or more would mean the collapse of civilisation – i.e. an infinite cost to the economy.

It is reported that a draft of the fourth assessment report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will tell politicians that scientists are now unable to place a reliable upper limit on how quickly the atmosphere will warm as carbon dioxide levels increase (Climate scientists issue dire warning, The Guardian 26 Feb 2006).

Against that, British climatologist James Annan says the risks of extreme climate sensitivity have been overstated, and that the chance of climate sensitivity exceeding 4.5C on a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of C02 is "less than 5%".

But even if the chance of extreme sensitivity and resulting catastrophe thirty to fifty years hence is only 1% or 0.5% you still get an infinite number when you multiply by an infinite cost.
Adherents to the Kyoto Protocol (which requires only small cuts in emissions) may see significant net benefits flowing from investments in greater energy efficiency and other measures. Given the resources available to rich and emerging nations there is no reason that such investments need be at the expense of other measures to support human well-being now and in the future. If your brother and his children are starving and also have malaria do you give them porridge and leave it at that?

Andrew Bartlett said...

Even if we say that Lomborg's logic is correct, and that the consequences of climate change are a simple magnification of the same social problems we face now, his argument serves as rhetorical cover for doing nothing at all.

The people who read and write the WSJ and the NRO are unlikely to be pressing for action to spend money on any of the existing social problems. What their rhetoric does do is persuade apparent progressives to take the line that nothing ought be done about climate change as resources would be better spent elsewhere. And then life can continue 'as normal' (at least for the readers and writers of the WSJ and the NRO), with the second step, spending resources 'elsewhere', debated into the dust.