Some reservations about global warming policy
As one who advocates a rational and methodologically sound approach to global warming policy, I think that the just-published Stern Report provides a strong case that action should be taken.
Before I continue with why I still have some reservations, let me suggest that Grist readers who are critical of economics take a good look at this report. It is the breadth of the economic analysis, the attention to detail, and the range of policy options (informed by sound economic analysis) that make this report so powerful. It is also endorsed by some of the most prominent economists in the world, which gives it immense credibility. It is because it is the work of good economists that it is being taken seriously and may actually motivate government action. Whether you like it or not, the two most powerful groups of scientists engaged in global warming policy are climatologists and economists.
Now to why I am still wary of the conclusions.
To begin with, there is the very real chance that international action to thwart climate change will only be partial and will therefore result in the worst of all possible worlds: large costs, little actual mitigation, and a false sense of security. This is certainly the cynic in me speaking, but it is not an entirely unfounded suspicion. Addressing climate change in a comprehensive manner requires the largest degree of international cooperation and coordination in history, and a profound and rapid transformation of our basic industrial systems. Don’t get me wrong — it is doable, but to question whether it actually will be done is not unreasonable given the problems the international community has regarding issues of much less significance.
The second reason I am still wary is that in some sense international attention and the use of political capital is a zero-sum game; the more attention paid to climate change, the less attention paid to other issues of consequence. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. Just witness the world’s response to Sudan now that there is the fiasco in Iraq (I’m not sure that without Iraq we would address the genocide in Sudan, but the likelihood would be much greater). While climate change is a hugely important issue, if I had my way I would prefer a worldwide commitment to eradicate virulent diseases and create wildlife preserves in all of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. I would prefer to get serious about nuclear proliferation and the expansion of basic human rights. Does addressing global warming preclude these things? Of course not, but it may put them farther back on the burner.
In summary, I think addressing global warming almost surely passes a reasonable cost-benefit test and is the right thing to do. But I’m still hesitant. Even if you don’t agree with me, I hope you can see that my trepidation is due to legitimate concerns, and not because I don’t take the issue seriously.