Posted by Rich Sweeney on October 5, 2007
In an online article published by Foreign Policy this week, Paul J. Saunders and Vaughan Turekian argue that global climate change can’t be stopped. Therefore, their policy suggestion is that we not waste money trying to reduce carbon emissions, but instead start investing in dealing with the effects of climate change. For drawing such a dire conclusion, they provide almost no evidence to support this claim. It’s also interesting to note the backgrounds of the authors, particularly Mr. Saunders, who just a few years ago was firmly entrenched in the global warming deniers camp.
Politics aside, this position does shed light on the difficult choices policymakers face when addressing issues where the costs are high and the outcomes, of both action and inaction, are highly uncertain. On the one hand, you have people who view the costs of global warming as so obviously high that we should seek to avoid it at all costs. On the other you have people who say that our probability of successfully reigning in global warming is so small that it’s foolish to waste money on it. Like most things, the correct answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
What I find most interesting (and encouraging) from an economist’s perspective, is that both sides are eventually going to be forced to put dollar figures to their claims. The “tree huggers” will have to quantify the costs of doing nothing. Realists like Turekian and Saunders will have to tally both the costs of curbing carbon as well as the costs of societal adaptation to global warming. Then their analyses and assumptions will be questioned and tested by policy analysts and the scientific community. Eventually we’ll approach consensus on the range and probability distribution of these three key costs, and a rational democratic debate will set our course. The point is that while global warming is certainly an important, and sometimes scary, issue, economics provides a pretty good framework for making complicated decisions. We just need to gather all the facts, keep all options open, and avoid fatalist traps (on both sides) like the one posed in this article.