Is the Tide Turning?

Has the tide turned? Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund has an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal saying “many data-driven climate skeptics are reassessing the issue”.

In 1996 I defined the turning point of the discussion about climate science (the point where we could actually start talking about policy) as the date when the Wall Street Journal would acknowledge the indisputable and apparent fact of anthropogenic climate change; the year in which it would simply be ridiculous to deny it. My prediction was that this would happen around 2015.

But this Krupp piece is just a guest opinion. I’m not sure the WSJ has actually accepted reality yet. It’s just starting to squint in its general direction. 2015 still looks like a good bet.

Anyway Krupp asks for concessions from both sides:

If both sides can now begin to agree on some basic propositions, maybe we can restart the discussion. Here are two:

The first will be uncomfortable for skeptics, but it is unfortunately true: Dramatic alterations to the climate are here and likely to get worse—with profound damage to the economy—unless sustained action is taken. As the Economist recently editorialized about the melting Arctic: “It is a stunning illustration of global warming, the cause of the melt. It also contains grave warnings of its dangers. The world would be mad to ignore them.”

The second proposition will be uncomfortable for supporters of climate action, but it is also true: Some proposed climate solutions, if not well designed or thoughtfully implemented, could damage the economy and stifle short-term growth. As much as environmentalists feel a justifiable urgency to solve this problem, we cannot ignore the economic impact of any proposed action, especially on those at the bottom of the pyramid. For any policy to succeed, it must work with the market, not against it.

I think both propositions are obviously true. I wonder who would be made uncomfortable by the second one.


  1. I'm not made at all uncomfortable by the second one. It's a strawman that people who accept the physics of climate change are also wild-eyed maniacs who don't care about the economic impacts of mitigation. I guess maybe there is some intersection between the street activist types and the anarchist wackos who damage property at G8 meetings, but this isn't representative.

    But in the end, the whole point of mitigation is that it appears that the costs of inaction are worse than the costs of action. That, combined with the prudence of prevention, is what motivates action. I think most would agree that the action should be designed well, to avoid perverse consequences. I don't think that's at all uncomfortable. But I acknowledge you'll see a variety of opinions as to what that means, in terms of what specific policy to craft. Those of us with a science background do need to admit we aren't economists - these are areas where economists need to lead.

    • "where economists need to lead", if there are any who have an intellectual tool kit that can address the problem, which isn't clear.

      Count me skeptical.

  2. I have often wondered if we might have had a climate bill by now, if those favoring one could have all stood behind the cap and trade, i.e., market-based approach - that was actually spearheaded by Krupp. Admittedly not perfect, and the implementation challenges are admittedly daunting, but I'll save that discussion for another time. The point is, agreeing on what to do is much harder than opposing any action whatsoever.

    • "I have often wondered if we might have had a climate bill by now, if those favoring one could have all stood behind the cap and trade"

      If you are talking about the US, I think the answer simply has to be no. When it comes up in Congress, it's blocked by those wanting inaction, period. They have had the numbers to do that.

      mt - I advise humility. Just as it is silly for people to dismiss climate science and climate scientists without putting in the time to read and understand the literature - it's also silly for us to handwavingly dismiss economists. Geese, ganders and all that. Have skepticism, but it'll still have to be economists who do parts of the policy work. At least, before Congress twists it beyond recognition.

  3. It is not just the environmentalists who have got to accept that mitigation will hurt the economy. The sceptics too have to accept that growth must end.

    It is no use economists insisting on BAU. They have to work out a new system where there are not large sectors of the population unemployed and starving, otherwise it will inevitably lead to revolutions.

    • Since posting the above I have seen this: People and the planet report from the Royal Society. As I see it, it is recommending 1) the poor get richer, 2) the rich get poorer, 3)the global population must stop growing, 4) without reducing population it will not be possible to tackle global warming.

      Krupp is correct to argue that greenies like us have to accept point 2, but I do not see the sceptics ever accepting that :-(

      Cheers, Alastair.

  4. I think you can find many economists, Krugman for example, who would be happy to combine investment in wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, rapid transit, high-speed rail, etc. as ways to provide stimulus and reduce carbon emissions. Such policies would help draw us out of the present depression. With negative short-term rates and extremely low long-term rates, it's actually fiscally foolish for the US not to do this. Unfortunately, with the Republican party captured by the Koch party and the Democrats afraid or captured by Wall Street, the chances of this happening are none and none.

    Even if, by some miracle, some such policy were to come to pass, the long-term necessity for us to accept a lower overall standard of living, especially when that will require far more economic equality (perhaps including the confiscation of giant fortunes) and far less economic "freedom" (virtual destruction of the "free trade" system, a great deal more regulation of both financial markets and manufacturing industries). A potential counterbalance could be achieved by reductions in the security state, both external (military, diplomatic and WOT) and internal (freeing non-violent drug offenders, outlawing private prisons, restoring fair bankruptcy laws, legalizing and/or decriminalizing cannabis and opiates). Demilitarizing the police and reinvigorating public education by ending subsidies for private schools would also be a nice start. Community-run health exchanges could be substituted for the incredibly inefficient health insurance non-system. Other services may have to be pushed down to the community level as well, including procurement and distribution of food and clothing.

    Individuals, for our part, need to understand that we have to take small and large measures (reduced or no driving, vegetable gardens, climatized architecture, buying locally, fewer clothes, toys,etc.) to change our own lives. I'm guilty in this, because I've lived overseas for twenty years but want to return at least once a year. I may have to choose.

    I realize that it's unlikely that these changes will come to pass voluntarily, and the tendency of people and the societies they live in to look for the most conservative solution (i.e., doubling down on what doesn't work) mitigate against meaningful reform. Still, national disaster was avoided once, some eighty years ago, so the worst outcomes may still be avoidable, if Americans can once again see themselves as believers in progress towards their ideals.

    We can't all become survivalists; surviving into the next century (moot for me as a septuagenerian) will likely call on all our cooperative skills, or else what we are likely to get in a world fighting over scarce food and water, never mind fossil fuels, is neofeudalism.

    As I write, however, I am dogged by the thought that I'm doing little more than dogpaddling in a pond full of fecal matter, mumbling, "Don't make a wave."

    I would ask people like you, Michael, if there is still time for implementing step-down policies, even if the will can be aroused--or are we so close to the environmental endgame that cataclysmic change is inevitable? I know you're devoted to pressing for immediate changes, but will a slow turnaround beginning in 2015 or later be just too late?

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