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Warriors for an Endless Summer

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(warning: long boring post. read at your own risk)

It’s time we came up with a nice catchy name for the tireless army of people who’ll fight tooth and nail against any suggestion that global warming is a real problem that demands real solutions. Here’s my humble suggestion: Warriors for an endless summer (WFAES).

As the industrial and political proponents of global warming skepticism slowly give it up, their mysterious apologists on the ground (aka: WFAES) have been forced to move on from the mid-90’s salad days of politically correct scientists conspiring to bring down the global economy (the motives, beyond advancing their own careers, were never really spelled out). Even the Oil companies and the Saudi government are on board (more or less) with actual science now, leaving only the Bush administration and Flack Central Station behind to ponder whether all these temperature increases are actually happening, or are actually anthropogenic.

So whither the skeptics? There has been some flirtation with an (over)emphasis on uncertainty, but that is insufficient to meet their political needs. They seem to have settled on a “break out the sunscreen and fire up the grill” strategy, where we all kick back and enjoy our endless summer. More seriously, they parrot the oft-repeated Lomborg line that the costs of addressing the problem (specifically “calculated” as the costs of Kyoto compliance) would be much greater than the problem itself, so we should do nothing. This is often combined with rampant speculation about the various positive benefits to be accrued from a warming world. Speculating about these positive benefits is fun and easy. For a primer in how to do it, read through many of the comments in this thread. Chris Bertram makes the utterly banal observation that the costs of global warming will be felt most acutely not by the people who benefit most from the CO2 emissions status quo, but by the world’s poor, especially those who live in large coastal cities like Calcutta. Furthermore, those who take Lomborg’s line are awfully quiet on the question of this extraordinary transfer of wealth their logic seems to imply.

The comments section is a showcase of the state of the art in WFAES sophistry; a remarkable admixture of the most amateurish cost-benefit analysis you’ve ever seen and crocodile tears galore for all those poor people we’d be condemning with our global Kyoto recession. I think the award for “Outstanding achievement in the field of irresponsible speculation” goes to WFAES Giles, who assures us that:

If Calcutta is flooded and everyone moves to Bombay then the net effect is that India becomes better off – because one city of 30 million has higher output than 2 of 15 million.

Anyway, since I’m hearing this general line of reasoning over and over again, I thought I’d pull together a few thoughts on its basic problems.

First, it is entirely plausible that global warming will reap some (actual) benefits. The most likely candidates are increased agricultural output in Russia and Canada, and there are other lesser benefits that we might find. But the speculation about the potential benefits has a feeling quite similar to the Kaplan response to the Lancet study about casualties in Iraq. Looking at a range of possibilities and happily cheering about one small subset of them (the most optimistic one) and conveniently ignoring the most likely one, let alone the worst possible one, isn’t really the smartest way to deal with the future of our world. Furthermore, it’s worth stressing that the costs of global warming can hardly be known with any accuracy. This is in part because we don’t know how much global warming will happen, but even if we knew precisely how much the world would warm for the next 100 years, many of the costs (and benefits) would still come as surprises. Ecosystems are funny things. Climate models suggest the possibility of various feedback loops the effects of which are remarkably hard to predict. That’s why the ranges of outcomes are pretty large. (Here’s a link (PDF) to the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers from their Third Assessment report (2001); these assessment reports are the best place to look for the state of the science. The conspiracy theories about the IPCC are breathtaking in scope, but entirely lacking in evidence; this is where serious climate science resides.) Regardless of the degree of uncertainly, about two things there can be very little doubt. 1) The evidence and likelihood of likely harms is far, far greater than the evidence and likelihood of likely benefits, and 2) Anyone who blathers on about benefits isn’t interested in serious assessment, they’re interested in parroting talking points.

Second, the argument that Kyoto will cost more (economically) than it will help (environmentally) isn’t completely insane but relies on a few flawed assumptions. First of all, Kyoto has always been properly understood as a flawed but necessary first step towards serious action on this issue. It was never intended to be the final solution to the problem. Noting that Kyoto and Kyoto alone won’t do much to stop global warming, but might only slow it down a bit is accurate. Suggesting this means Kyoto’s benefits are minimal is the wrong inference to draw. For one thing, slowing down the process of global warming is quite valuable, as it buys the world more time to a)figure out better ways to slow it down further, and/or b)figure out better ways to predict and cope with what’s coming. Secondly, first steps make second steps possible, and Kyoto could have helped in numerous ways here. Thirdly, the economic costs of Kyoto are poorly calculated. When the Bush administration was making the case for withdrawal from the protocol in 2001, they trotted out a series of economic cost prediction associated with Kyoto that spelled doom for the US economy. These predictions were based on the costs of the necessary reduction in CO2 emissions with no allowances made for substitution. To ignore such a basic and obvious principle of economics is utterly hackish. The shortcomings of such analysis are twofold. First, it overestimates economic costs by ignoring the economic activity that will use substitutes for CO2 emissions. Second, in doing so, it ignores the economic investment and growth in sectors that will develop such technology. Substitution is economics 101–if product X becomes available in limited qualities, the market (fancy that!) will incentivize the creation of viable substitutes, and some of them will get used. Currently, the cost of substitutes is greater than fossil fuels, but that has to do with a)a lack of immediate economic incentives to the creation of technologies that lower the costs of alternatives, and b)a host of direct and indirect subsidies for fossil fuel consumption. As those things change, we should expect to see other products fill this gap to some extent. It’s worth noting that the costs of the major cleaner energy sources have plummeted by several orders of magnitude since the 70’s, despite a lack of clear and immediate incentives. For economic impact studies that actually consider substitution, the likely economic impact is quite different from what we heard from the Bush Administration in 2001, and have been hearing ever since from the warriors for an endless summer:

Reducing greenhouse gases could alter future economic conditions, largely through increased energy prices. While these changes could be significant, the economy is rapidly becoming even more flexible and responsive as technology changes the way things are invented, produced, and distributed. Accordingly, the damages to the economy might be less. Yet, many economic models used in predicting the future costs of climate change policies do not adequately capture the economy’s full range of substitution possibilities….The most striking conclusion of this work is that failure to depict the full range of historically-observed substitution possibilities (as many economic models do) can lead to as much as a doubling of the estimated costs of a climate change policy, an overestimate that is wholly attributable to this one pivotal assumption. overestimation may be even more pronounced since the economy appears more flexible today than in the post-war period when these observations were made.

Finally, the “do nothing” path has costs associated with it that have little to do with global warming. The current path has us investing more and more in a CO2 emitting economy. The fossil fuel in most plentiful supply is also the one most harmful to our environment and our health here on the earth’s surface–coal. Clean coal technologies can mitigate these harms to some extent, but we shouldn’t count on these technologies being implemented with any regularity given the lack of environmental regulation and enforcement in much of the world. Even if global warming is a complete scam cooked up by the communists in academia and the UN, the current energy path has other serious costs associated with it as well.

Soberly addressing this rather overwhelming problem is one of the most difficult tasks that faces the world today, and addressing costs associated with different policy options is a crucial part of any such assessment. This task is not aided by the WFAES who deliberately cloud and confuse these discussions.

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