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The Price of Planetary Gambling

Critics of Climate Legislation Could Use a New Calculator

Dice-shaped planets SOURCE: iStockphoto Why the economic side of the global warming debate needs a more balanced ledger.

In the coming weeks, we can ready ourselves for quite a politico-scientific spectacle. Starting June 2, Senate Democrats have committed to a debate on the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill, which is nothing if not a frustrating piece of legislation—too weak in its emissions reductions for the most dedicated environmentalists, but way too strong for president Bush, significant parts of the fossil fuel industry, and probably much of Congress as well.

The Lieberman-Warner debate will provide occasion for plenty of misinformation about climate change science. In particular, we can expect Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)—who will forever be remembered for describing global warming as possibly “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—to continue his basic strategy of saying anything, no matter how incredible, to muddy the waters on the issue.

Preventing the worst impacts of global warming will have very real positive economic benefits, yet those always seem to get short shrift once the argument gets onto economic turf.

But although they’re certainly not over, the days of battling over climate science do appear on the wane. Simply put, it’s becoming less and less respectable to be an outright global warming “denier” these days. Those who continue to oppose capping our domestic greenhouse gas emissions are more likely to couch their central arguments in economic terms—i.e., by arguing that taking strong action will be too expensive, and so we’d be better off just trying to adapt.

Right now, a book that’s apparently having quite a run in the UK does just that. Entitled An Appeal to Reason, it’s by Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, and it argues that overall, the net “cost” of global warming won’t be all that bad—mankind will show a surprising ability to adapt to the changes it brings. But, adds Lawson, the price of truly stopping the juggernaut, if stop it we must, would be massive: a dramatic rise in the global price of energy and thus considerable damage to economies.

We can expect to hear similar economic charges brought against the fairly modest (and moderate) Lieberman-Warner bill, which represents a starting point—but certainly no final solution—to the global warming problem. A recent analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the legislation would reduce U.S. emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 56 percent by 2050—hardly strong enough to really put us in the climatic safe zone at a time when scientists think we ultimately need an 80 percent cut in global emissions. Yet according to the EPA, even the Lieberman-Warner bill’s relatively modest cuts could reduce U.S. GDP considerably: by up to 3.8 percent in 2030 and up to 6.9 percent in 2050. Expect the bill’s less even-handed opponents to make the damage sound even more drastic, especially at a time when gas prices are already punishing consumers.

Still, scanning the EPA study, one sentence sticks out in particular: “The economic benefits of reducing emissions were not determined for this analysis.” The arguments of Lawson suffer from a similar flaw—preventing the worst impacts of global warming will have very real positive economic benefits, yet those always seem to get short shrift once the argument gets onto economic turf.

So to really get any sense of climate change’s true price tag, you have to consider the total global cost for all impacts.

Granted, it’s not really possible to put a price tag on, say, a Pacific island state that runs the risk of going under water—or on an ice-covered North Pole. Or on polar bears and the ecosystems that support them. But unchecked global warming will have many costs that can indeed be monetized—and some estimates suggest that even over the short term, they’re comparable to the U.S. cost of the Lieberman-Warner bill. Take, for example, a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which attempted to update the famous 2006 UK Stern Report—which found that by 2200 global warming’s costs could be simply massive, equaling 5 to 20 percent of the world’s GDP—and apply it to the United States in particular. NRDC projects that if we don’t deal with global warming at all, costs to the U.S. could be as high as 3.6 percent of GDP by 2100, and that’s just from four projected impacts (hurricane losses, sea level rise damage to real estate, rising energy demand, and water supply costs to battle drought).

There are problematic aspects to the NRDC study—for instance, the hurricane issue is very murky, and it’s hard to tell whether the study authors took its complexity into account—but there can be little doubt it’s a step in the right direction. It is simply ridiculous to presume that the economic impacts of global warming won’t be anything to fret about, or to leave them out of discussion. On the contrary, depending on how quickly we act to stave off the problem, those impacts could be absolutely massive. And they ought to put to shame any short term whining about the expense of dealing with climate change.

For after all, the NRDC study only looked at four projected climate change impacts as they affect the United States in particular. Global warming will have many other impacts too, and is expected to take an even more severe toll on developing countries than here. So to really get any sense of climate change’s true price tag, you have to consider the total global cost for all impacts—including the potential cost of truly catastrophic scenarios like dramatic sea level rise that would overwhelm the world’s coastal cities (a possibility that, while not yet locked in, becomes more and more likely if we delay on this issue). Combine together all these expenses with the “cost” of losing so many things whose value aren’t even calculable—species, places, cultures, glaciers, ecosystems—and then you get a true sense of the possible “price.”

And as economic critics of climate change legislation constantly downplay this true price of global warming and selectively emphasize the cost of action, they use another sleight of hand, one that has been exposed by Center for American Progress senior fellow Dan Weiss. Weiss points out that climate change legislation, like the Lieberman-Warner bill, will spur considerable innovation in the renewable energy sector, which will both cut energy costs and reduce emissions simultaneously.

I don’t have a lot of hope for the passage of Lieberman-Warner this year. But I honestly do believe, once you think everything through, that it’s impossible to argue that it’s “worth it” to do nothing on climate change.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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