A new climate assessment allows us to think about good policy without panicking. Even if the U.S. economy grew at a meager 1.6% over the next 72 years, we’d still be three times as rich by 2090, with a GDP of $61 trillion.
You may recall the young Democratic National Committee staffer who, after the 2016 election, cried, “I’m going to die from climate change.” Or the Bloomberg columnist who said Exxon makes a product that “threatens the continuation of human life on earth.” Or a recent George Monbiot column in the Guardian in which he is chastened by a young woman who faces “extinction” because he didn’t do enough about global warming.
If any of these ring a bell, then you’ll be puzzled by the hysterical headlines that greeted a lengthy new U.S. government assessment which states that climate change will lead to—wait for it—a 10% reduction in economic growth over the next century.
There’s a reason press coverage of the report was uniformly confused. Headlines proclaimed a doom that couldn’t be found in its pages. Journalists emphasized the non-germane, such as the Chicago Tribune belaboring the fact that the “1,600-page report” was “vetted by 13 government agencies and written collectively with the help of 300 scientists.”
The authors of the government tract could have communicated their assumptions and findings succinctly and clearly. They didn’t.
You have to do some research to figure out what’s going on, but the key is their estimate of future emissions. The report adopts the RCP 8.5 scenario—for “representative concentration pathway.” (Don’t ask.)
As a widely cited 2011 paper puts it, RCP 8.5 is a “high emission” scenario, in which global population grows faster than currently expected, technological change is minimal, improvement in energy efficiency is minimal. The scenario also requires the “extraction of large amounts of unconventional hydrocarbon resources well beyond presently extractable reserves.”
Yet the authors of the new U.S. assessment still arrive at a manageable $510 billion in estimated annual climate-related costs by 2090. This sum is overwhelmingly due to lost labor hours and higher mortality from extreme temperatures, which may not be estimated with much reliability. (Interestingly, wildfire costs actually decline from present levels, “owing to projected landscape-scale shifts to vegetation with longer fire return interval.”)
Paying this bill would be a nuisance, not armageddon. Even if the U.S. economy grew at a meager 1.6% over the next 72 years, we’d still be three times as rich by 2090, with a GDP of $61 trillion.
Let’s step back for some perspective. A sizable portion of human economic activity since hunter-gatherer times has been devoted to mitigating climate risk, from the creation of clothing, shelter and fire, to the invention of sea walls, storm drains and insurance.
With the arrival of the theory of man-made warming came the opportunity and perhaps imperative to consider applying these costs to altering climate directly. But you would have to know which steps are worth taking.
The new U.S. report, as well as a United Nations report issued in October, instead aim at frightening the public—exactly the approach that so manifestly has failed to move the needle for 35 years.
Maybe it’s because voters are skeptical of doom-mongering. Maybe they have grown fatalistic about climate change. Or maybe, reflecting the folly of climate campaigners, they’ve gotten a message that acting on greenhouse gases requires giving up prosperity. Reporting Sunday on the French fuel-tax demonstrations, the New York Times noted: “Many in the crowd said that they did not disdain the government’s environmental goals, but that their own survival was more important.”
Bingo. In the minds of too many activists, climate really is a stalking horse for capitalism, consumerism and economic growth. They won’t be happy unless they can also stop mankind’s general quest for abundance.
The new U.S. study finds that it would be especially expensive to adapt to an especially dire climate scenario. No kidding, Sherlock. But climate varies and humans do adapt. Populations and economic activities (like farming) relocate over time. Coastal communities pull back or build dikes.
This is costly, but not so costly that average human welfare won’t keep going up, up, up even under the RCP 8.5 scenario.