Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate Change: No Matter the Cost

If something is not done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then there is a high probability of catastrophic climate change – such as sea-level rise that has the potential to destroy whole cities and cause the suffering of whole populations. In fact, we already see the first signs of this global disruption. So, we must do something now, no matter the cost!


Costs always matter.

Costs represent lost opportunity. However much time, energy, and resources we spend on this issue, that is time, energy, and resources that is not being spent on some other issue. Time, energy, and resources not being spent on some other issue is human suffering – and even human death – that is not being prevented elsewhere.

How much will it cost to shift from fossil-fuel to non-fossil fuels? It seems to me that it will take quite a bit. We are talking about huge amounts of scientific research, massive engineering work, and construction projects that are just as massive. In addition, in current discussion, I have seen numbers of between $100 billion and $600 billion to be given to poor countries to help them deal with the costs of climate change.

I raise my hand.

"Without denying that climate change imposes a threat, is this the best use for that money? And, if so, what is the evidence for that?"

Polio and small-pox were once world-wide diseases causing huge amounts of human suffering. This is not the case any more. The people who helped to fight these diseases possibly saved more human lives and prevented more human misery than is being put at risk due to climate change. Yet, they did it with a fraction of the cost.

Malaria kills 3 million people each year. In those areas where malaria is common, it has the ability to wreck whole economies, making it virtually impossible for the people there to break out of poverty and create better lives for themselves. How much would it cost to deal effectively with this threat? Perhaps our scientific research, engineering, and construction efforts could do more good there than it can with climate change?

Can we do more good with less money with an anti-malaria campaign, or an anti-AIDS campaign, then we can with an anti-global-warming campaign? Is the effort to deal with the effects of global warming taking attention and resources away from other threats that are far more immediate, and far easier to deal with?

I ask these as questions because I do not know. Yet, I would wager that many who insist that we do something about climate change do not know either. Instead, they are taking a very simplistic approach to the whole issue. Global climate change will produce some very costly effects, so obviously we must spend a great deal of time and money to prevent or mitigate those effects.

This leap is not only invalid, it is socially irresponsible. It involves turning one’s back on those who could be helped – whose lives could be saved – if these resources were devoted to those issues instead.

We can imagine a person – a first-resonder - at the scene of an automobile wreck, who devotes his whole energy to one person’s broken leg, while a family that could have been rescued burns to death while trapped in their car. If such a person were to make this type of mistake, we would accuse him of dereliction of duty, and condemn him for it. This type of person may well be deserving of condemnation. In fact, an investigation may conclude that he deserves a more formal type of condemnation – a reprimand and perhaps the loss of his job – because of his gross failure to do his duty.

We all have duties to others to help make sure that our resources are devoted to doing the most good with the least amount of money.

This is not a question of how good the science is. This is a question of how good the economics is. One can read through the International Panel on Climate Change Reports from cover to cover and not find any substantive discussion of how the costs and benefits of dealing with climate change stack up against the costs and benefits of dealing with other issues such as malaria. To do that, you need to subject the scientific results of the IPCC to economic scrutiny, and hold it up side-by-side with reports dealing with other issues.

Which means, one not only needs to become knowledgeable on climate-change issues. One also has to know and understand the situation with respect to all other activities that we could address with those same scientific, engineering, and construction resources.

Climate-change scientists may well be experts on climate change. However, when it comes to these questions, they are almost as much in the dark as the rest of us. What they do know is likely to be biased. They have reason to promote work on climate change rather than malaria or AIDS simply because they are climate-change researchers, and not malaria or AIDS researchers.

This has nothing to do with believing or not believing the climate change research. It has to do with the mistaken belief that all the information one needs is to be found in that research.

For those who insist that huge quantities of resources MUST be spent to deal with this issue, are you sure this is the best possible use for those resources?

I’m not.


Chris M said...

Okay, I admit solving climate change won't be easy. But there are some simple and obvious steps (that don't cost much) that can help and are being ignored:

Remember conservation doesn't cost money, and can even save a lot. We don't have to spend our way out of this problem.

Also, as hard as it might be, I think it's clear we can solve global warming with much less effort than WWII:

Richard in Darwin said...

Good article, posing interesting questions. My submission is on the economics of not addressing climate change.

It is certain that large capital investment will be necessary to kick start the change from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. However, I believe that once a level playing field has been established, the change will start to pay for itself. Remember that the oil and coal industry have had a great head start, with huge amounts of public money invested in infrastructure and innovation. This level of public support has not been available to renewable research and infrastructure until now. The famed low costs of fossil fuel burning is only so due to the high levels of public investment in the past (who set up the power grids? how much support has been given to the large car manufacturers, not only in subsidies to produce, but also in the neglect of public transport infrastructure?). The fossil fuel industry also relies on not having to pay for the clean up of the pollution. If this factor was included, fossil fuels would be prohibitively expensive, and there would be a rush on solar PV!

Would spending on renewable infrastructure be at the expense of other social spending? I don't see how that follows logically. There may have to be a cut in defence spending and arms research. A cut of 10% in US arms research would pay for all the world's anti-malarial programs. Remember also the large amounts of money spent in the last days of the Bush admin (850 billion) as a direct grant to the finance industry. This type of grant may have to be curtailed in the future.

Finally we must ask who benefits from the ownership of energy resources in the world today? It certainly doesn't generate the number of jobs that the renewable energy sector will given an even playing field. However, it is very likely that the vested interests of the oil and coal sector will prevent a level playing field in the energy sector. They have always won in the past.