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September 09, 2008

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Not sure of your point, Tim.

Easterbrook seems to be the only one who hasn't gotten the message, though. A little push-back for him: 1) Climate change is global, not local/regional, so an international focus makes sense here, where it doesn't for smog or acid rain. 2) Neither of those issues (nor, honestly, any of the others his lists in your "favorite paragraph") actually threatened modern civilization as a whole, which climate change does. Neither was going to destroy whole countries (see Tuvalu), force tens of millions from their homes (see Bangladesh), or cause mass extinction (starting from the poles and mountainsides).

So, Tim, I sure hope this was your favorite paragraph of the day because it made you laugh, or redouble your efforts to change the status quo.

Clearly, "poverty, disease, dictatorships, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, lack of girls' education, and more than 1 billion people without cleaning drinking water or electricity" are the top problems, but not only will climate change exacerbate these problems, the countries most experiencing these problems are not the countries that would be strongly adversely affected by international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Pollution abatement will affect developed countries much more, since developing countries don't emit much.

Second, it should be obvious that climate change requires international treaties, while smog needs no international action: the former is a global problem, whereas the latter is a local one, as Asa Hopkins noted. The global nature of climate change opens up massive free-riding problems (given the actions of other countries, why would China want to reduce their CO2 emissions?).

This is a clear econ. 101 example of a public good (or bad) and the problem of free riding, and it is disheartening that an economist for whom I hold much respect can so easily miss or ignore the basic economics of the problem.

Let me explain:

1. I just love the line "super-ultra emergency." Although I have always been uncomfortable with climate change deniers - the argument that massive industrial development is not affecting the planet - I also worry a lot more about human suffering from basic challenges like disease, tyranny, and the ancient state of nature. But how to address any one problem is a question of balance, which economists frame as opportunity costs.

2. What consistently ranks as people's main concern is the economy -- especially anxiety about the economic future for their children. If we apply that concern to the bottom billion, you could multiply that anxiety by one hundred.

3. I almost mentioned the global externality problem with climate change, but am on a mission to write "shorter posts" which is the advice from succesful blogger friends. But I think both Asa and Brian are right on this one. Global warming is different.

4. I don't buy the argument that it exacerbates other problems and is therefore the biggest problem. Rain may exacerbate the sinking Titanic, but I still wouldn't focus on the rain.

5. The two reasons to dislike climate change are (1) it causes human suffering and (2) it harms nature. The latter critique is anti-human, and 99 percent of people reject those arguments. We would not build highways or antibiotics or spaceships or universities if our primary value was the preservation of a static vision of "nature."

As for the first reason, I am with you. But I try to avoid getting caught in the logical trap of "so much economic growth will hurt ... economic growth." We have to be especially careful of cures that are worse than the disease.

6. One question for perspective. I asked a very expert enviro friend years ago what the biggest environmental problem is in our lifetime. I expected him to reinforce my own sense that global warming is it. It was number three. Climate change is sexy and glamorous, but this person suggested it was stealing the thunder of more mundane problems like despeciation and habitat loss. The loss of large natural spaces like the Amazon and the Pacific ocean is an issue I suspect we will look back on in 50 years and wonder why people didn't do anything about it back "then."

It is very difficult to compose a short post (or comment) about climate change, so it's understandable that Tim neglected some things.

Tim's point (in his comment) about deforestation of the Amazon is right on point. I read somewhere (I think Scientific American) that if we could halt or even begin to rollback Amazon deforestation, it would hugely reduce global warming because it is the main contributor to it.

As for the macro debate, there are some very basic issues that often get ignored. First, we shouldn't talk as if "climate change" is bad. The climate has always been changing for all of our planet's history and it's ridiculous to think humans can "stop" it. In the spirit of Orwell, language always matters.

Second, we're living in what's called an "interglacial," a period between ice ages, and this particular interglacial has now lasted about 12,000 years, one of the longer on record. Ironically, this interglacial coincided with the rise of human civilization--in one sense we have global warming to thank for human civilization. If you're worried about the long-term future of humanity, why not worry about the onset of another ice age?

Third, the current period of warming is, in a larger perspective, quite small. There was much greater warming during the multi-century Middle Ages period of warming, followed by a few centuries of cooling. In fact, looking at the 3,000 year mean temperature for the world, we have actually just climbed back up to it! Thirty years ago, after a few decades of falling temperature, the media were abuzz about global cooling and prepared to "re-engineer" the earth to warm it! Can you imagine if we had done that?

Finally, using Greenland ice cores, scientists have noticed other periods of significant warming in Earth's history, not caused by carbon increases and certainly not caused by humanity. In fact, if you look back over the history of temperate rises and falls, there is much greater correlation with solar radiation than carbon. Readers likely saw the recent articles about August being a month sans sunspots, a worrisome data point if it becomes a trend, one that would mean cooling not warming.

And (really) finally, if we do choose to do something about global warming, we have to use an approach of cost-benefit balance. The very best analyst of this is William Nordhaus, who has a new book out on this topic.

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