A number of people seem quite excited by a recent article in American Interest by Richard Tol, called Hot Stuff, Cold Logic. The basic premise of the article seems to be that climate change isn’t the only problem we face (which is true) and that providing cheap energy that can lead to economic growth can both solve these other problems and allow us to address climate change more easily in the future (i.e., prioritise economic growth).
The article does, however, contain the following – quite remarkable – comment,
Change, after all, can be for the better or the worse, and at any rate it is inevitable; there has never been a lengthy period of climate stasis.
which might explain from whom Benny Peiser is getting his advice.
I don’t really want to delve into the details of the article, but I thought I might make some comments. Something that many seem to have highlighted is this
The current evidence, weak and incomplete as it may be, as summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggests that moderate warming—say, what we might expect around the year 2075—would make the average person feel as if she had lost 0.2 to 2.0 percent of her income. In other words, a century worth of climate change is about as bad as losing a year of economic growth. In other words, a century worth of climate change is about as bad as losing a year of economic growth.
So, this sounds pretty good, but it ignores so many caveats as to be – in my opinion – virtually meaningless. If you consider studies of the economic impact of climate change (Richard’s own meta-analysis) the impact depends on the change in temperature, not the change in time. How much we warm by 2075 depends both on our chosen emission pathway and on the actual climate sensitivity. Richard’s own meta-analysis suggests that if the impact of climate change is to be about as bad as losing a year of economic growth, then we will only have warmed by about 1oC. However, this is only likely if we follow a relatively low emission pathway which, if we are to continue growing, then requires that a reasonable fraction of our energy is provided by alternatives.
Richard’s basic argument therefore seems to be that we should focus on growth because the impact of climate change will probably be small and that getting wealthier will both solve many of our current problems (poverty, disease,..) and is the best way to deal with the impacts of climate change. The problem is that his first assumption appears to be based on us not following a high emission pathway, and hence seems inconsistent with his conclusion that we should simply priortise economic growth over reducing our emissions.
However, what I really wanted to do in this post (which is going to end up longer than I intended) is use our understanding of physical climatology to illustrate why this basic just get wealthy idea promoted by Tol (and also others, like Lomborg) has some issues. Let’s assume that if we accept this argument today, then it is valid at any instant at which the damages from climate disruption are not sufficiently severe so as to require us to actively address climate change. Hence it’s essentially an argument that we should do nothing until it’s patently obvious that we need to do something. So, what’s wrong with this?
Let’s consider what we can do if/when we reach the point where climate change is doing obvious damage. Is it possible, for example, to prevent the global temperatures from rising any further? Well, yes, but this would require stopping our emissions almost instantly. Seems a little drastic and unrealistic. We could, potentially, consider geo-engineering, but that carries significant risks of its own. An alternative is to try and fix the atmospheric CO2 concentration. This is also possible, but would require almost halving our emissions instantly, and halving them again over the next 3-4 decades; also somewhat drastic (for more on this see Steve Easterbrook’s post). Additionally, this would lead to continued warming (maybe 0.5-1oC). Given that we expect the impact of climate disruption to be non-linear, this would be guaranteeing even more severe damage than what is already regarded as obviously requiring action.
So, if we follow the advice of people like Tol and Lomborg, and if our understanding of physical climatology is broadly correct, we would almost be guaranteeing drastic action some time in the future. How far into the future? Well, if we continue following a high emission pathway (as we are essentially doing now) we could pass the 2oC limit in the next 3 to 4 decades. I realise that this limit isn’t some kind of boundary between everything being fine and everything being catastrophic, but keeping below 2oC is regarded by many as being a sensible goal. Following the advice of Tol/Lomborg would appear to be guaranteeing that we will not achieve this goal, and would appear to suggest that some kind of drastic action will be required in the future if we are to avoid continued warming once (if?) climate disruption becomes severe. Of course, we could simply hope that physical climatology is wrong and that somehow the underlying law of nature is let the markets decide!