Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The sensible take on Ridley

There's been this odd libertarian optimist take on the recent American hurricanes along the lines of "look at how well America will recover from this - because it's rich.  Rich countries always recover from disaster well, much better than poor countries, where more people die too.  So the answer to climate change is - don't do anything that will make people less rich.  Nothing.  Don't touch a cent.  That means burn more coal and make more electricity.  We need to be as rich as possible."

See Matt Ridley's article that appeared in the Murdoch press internationally yesterday for an example of this argument, but I had seen raised last week elsewhere, too.

That this is a shallow, shallow take on the matter of climate change and all of the research on it seems very obvious to me, and it's curious how it is so often put by the already rich.   But sometimes the obvious still has to be stated for the thick of head out there.   I think a reasonable, simply worded, response is at And Then There's Physics, from which I quote:
There’s however, in my view, a bigger issue with Ridley’s argument. It essentially seems to be that we should mostly ignore climate change, just get richer, and that fossil fuels are mostly better than any alternative. The problem is that if we drive economic growth through burning more and more fossil fuels and pumping more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, then the climate will continue to change and the impacts will get more and more severe.

If we were confident that economic growth would always outpace climate damages, then this might be a reasonable suggestion (although, maybe don’t suggest it right now to those who live on Caribbean islands). However, this is almost certainly not going to be the case. There is almost certainly a level of warming above which the impacts would be utterly catastrophic. We may not be able to define it precisely, but it is almost certainly within reach, either because we simply pump all the CO2 we can into the atmosphere, or because our climate is sensitive enough that we get there even if we don’t emit as much CO2 as we possibly could.

Given this, there must be an even lower level of warming at which cimate damages start outpacing economic growth. So, suggesting that we can just grow our way out of trouble simply seems wrong. If people don’t like the current policy then the solution (in my view) is not to argue that we should essentially ignore climate change and simply grow, but to argue for something like a carbon tax.

There is much more to be said about Ridley's argument, including the implausibility of thinking that the only thing holding back poor countries (or countries with lots of poor people) from becoming rich overnight is a lack of coal powered electricity, but that will do for now.

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