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David Friedman: What Is Wrong With Global Warming Anyway?

The argument for large and expensive efforts to prevent or reduce global warming has three parts, in principle separable: Global temperature is trending up, the reason is human activity, and the consequences of the trend continuing are very bad. Almost all arguments, pro and con, focus on the first two. The third, although necessary to support the conclusion, is for the most part ignored by both sides.

The usual argument to show that an increase in global temperatures by a few degrees centigrade over the next century would be a catastrophe, or at least a very bad thing, consists of pointing out specific bad effects: rising sea level increasing the risk of flooding in very low lying areas, rising temperature making particular areas less suited to growing the crops they now grow. But an increase in global temperature would also have good effects, as should be obvious to anyone who has ever spent a winter in Chicago, not to mention Alaska or Siberia. The question is not whether there are any bad effects but whether there are net bad effects, whether the increased risk of flooding in Bangladesh does or does not outweigh the opening of a sea route north of Asia and the increase in the habitable area of Canada and Siberia.

The answer, I think, is that nobody knows if the net effects would be good or bad, and probably nobody can know. We are talking, after all, about effects across the world over a century. How accurately could somebody in 1900 have predicted what would matter to human life in 2000? What reason do we have to think we can do better?

Should we, for instance, assume that Bangladesh will still be a poor country a century hence, or that it will by then have followed the path blazed by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong—and so be in a position to dike its coast, as Holland did several centuries ago, or move housing some miles further inland, at a cost that can be paid out of petty change? Should we assume that population increase makes agricultural land more valuable and the expansion of the area over which crops can be grown more important, or that improvements in crop yield make it less? While there may be people who believe that they know the answer to such questions, the numbers required to justify such belief are at best educated guesses, in most cases closer to pure invention. Someone who wants to prove that global warming is bad can make high estimates for the costs, low estimates for the benefits, and so prove his case to his own satisfaction. Someone with the opposite agenda can reverse the process and prove his case equally well.

If we cannot calculate in any detail what the actual consequences of global warming and associated costs and benefits will be, an alternative is to ask whether we have any reason to expect, a priori, that costs will be larger than benefits. There are, I think, two answers.

The first is that any change, whether warming or cooling, is presumptively bad, because current human activity is optimized against current conditions. Farmers grow crops suited to the climate where they are growing them; a change in climate will require a costly change in what they grow and how they grow it. Houses are designed for the climate they are built in and located in places not expected, under current circumstances, to flood. Putting it in economic terms, we have born sunk costs based on the current environment, and a change in that environment will eliminate some of the quasi-rents that we expected as the return for those costs.

This is a real argument against rapid change. But the global warming controversy involves changes over not a year or a decade but a century. Over a century, most farmers will change the crop they find it most profitable to grow multiple times; if average temperatures are trending up, those changes will include a shift towards crops better suited to slightly warmer weather. Over a century, most houses will be torn down and replaced; if sea level is rising, houses currently built on low lying coastal ground will be rebuilt a little farther inland—not much farther if we are talking, as the IPCC estimates suggest we should be, about a rise of a foot or two. Hence the presumption that change is bad is a very weak one for changes as slow as those we have good reason to expect from global warming.

It is hard to see any other reason to expect gobal warming to make us, on net, worse off. The earth and its climate were not, after all, designed for our convenience, so there is no good reason to believe that their current state is optimal for us. It is true that our species evolved to survive under then existing climatic conditions but, over the period for which humans have existed, climate has varied by considerably more than the changes being predicted for global warming. And, for the past many thousands of years, humans have lived and prospered over a range of climates much larger than the range that we expect the climate at any particular location to change by.

If we have no good reason to believe that humans will be substantially worse off after global warming than before, we have no good reason to believe that it is worth bearing sizable costs to prevent global warming.

Readers who reject this conclusion are invited to offer reasons why we should expect the negative effects of global warming to outweigh the positive. Readers on the other side, inclined to post comments attacking me for being so credulous as to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming, are free to do so but should not expect any response from me, since that is not the argument I am at the moment interested in having.

David Friedman, 5 September 2011