Global-Warming Jujitsu

Suppose that the pessimistic forecasts of global warming are accurate. Suppose that the planet’s temperature rises according to the high-end scenario of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that we experience the economic and social impacts (like hunger, malaria and coastal flooding) projected by the much-publicized Stern Review sponsored by the British government.

Does that mean our best course of action is to quickly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases?

That’s the question addressed in a new report by Indur Goklany for the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank that has taken issue with many of the dire predictions about global warming. What’s interesting about this report is that it works from the assumption that the dire forecasts are accurate, even the Stern Review, which has been severely criticized for exaggerating the economic costs of global warming. (See, for instance, the critiques by the Yale economist William Nordhaus in the journal Science and in this article article from the Journal of Economic Literature.) Dr. Goklany accepts the Stern Review’s grim numbers and looks at the I.P.C.C.’s various scenarios, which project different levels of warming and sea-level rise depending on the the rate of economic growth, energy use and other factors.

“The surprising conclusion using the Stern Review’s own estimates,” Dr. Goklany writes, “is that future generations will be better off in the richest but warmest” of the I.P.C.C.’s scenarios. He concludes that cutting emissions will do much less good than encouraging sustainable development in poor countries and policies of “focused adaptation” to deal with disease and environmental problems like coastal flooding. For a fifth the cost of the Kyoto Protocol, he calculates, these adaptation policies could yield more immediate and also long-term benefits than would a policy that entirely halted global warming (which would cost far, far more than Kyoto). He argues that this path isn’t merely an economic but also a moral imperative:

For the foreseeable future, people will be wealthier–and their well-being higher–than is the case for present generations both in the developed and developing worlds and with or without climate change. The well-being of future inhabitants in today’s developing world would exceed that of the inhabitants of today’s developed world under all but the poorest scenario. Future generations should, moreover, have greater access to human capital and technology to address whatever problems they might face, including climate change. Hence the argument that we should shift resources from dealing with the real and urgent problems confronting present generations to solving potential problems of tomorrow’s wealthier and better positioned generations is unpersuasive at best and verging on immoral at worst.

Other people, of course, may have different moral views. Dr. Goklany focuses on measures of the physical well-being of humans; others may attach more importance to the spiritual value and esthetic benefits of preserving ecosystems. But I think he points to a real risk in making large sacrifices today to address problems that will be easier to address when people are richer and more technologically advanced. If anything, Dr. Goklany writes, his calculations underestimate the capacity of future generations to deal with these problems because they’ll have technologies we can’t imagine today (just as the advocates of draconian population-control policies during the 1960s didn’t envision that future famines would be averted thanks to improvements in agriculture).

It can be argued that we’re rich enough to afford both the focused-adaptation policies and other steps to cut emissions (like the carbon tax that I keep advocating). But resources are limited, particularly when you’re trying persuade voters in rich countries to send their money to poor countries, and there are useful questions about priorities raised in this report from a researcher who has previously studied trends in environmental quality and sustainable development. (Dr. Goklany works at the office of policy analysis at the Department of Interior and was part of the U.S. delegation at the recent Bali climate conference, but this report was done on his own time and doesn’t reflect government policy.) Here’s Dr. Goklany’s summary of what different policies can accomplish:

Halting climate change would reduce cumulative mortality from various climate-sensitive threats, namely, hunger, malaria, and coastal flooding, by 4-10 percent in 2085, while increasing populations at risk from water stress and possibly worsening matters for biodiversity. But according to cost information from the U.N. Millennium Program and the I.P.C.C., measures focused specifically on reducing vulnerability to these threats would reduce cumulative mortality from these risks by 50-75 percent at a fraction of the cost of reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs). Simultaneously, such measures would reduce major hurdles to the developing world’s sustainable economic development, the lack of which is why it is most vulnerable to climate change.

Can we afford to do both? If so, how? If not, what should be our priority?

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