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Robert Frank on climate catastrophes that can be averted at low cost

I have argued several times (here, here) that it is wise to be very pessimistic about the consequences of continued unmitigated releases of greenhouse gas emissions.  If this is alarmism then it is a rational form of alarmism.  Rational because, as has been repeatedly pointed out, the costs of averting a climate catastrophe are small.  Robert Frank, one of my favourite economists and economist-writers, takes up this line of argument in the current NYT.  The facts are frighteningly self-evident:

“According to recent estimates from the Integrated Global Systems Model at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the median forecast is for a climb of 9 degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end, in the absence of effective countermeasures.   That forecast, however, may underestimate the increase. According to the same M.I.T. model, there is a 10% chance that the average global temperature will rise more than 12.4 degrees by 2100, and a 3% chance it will climb more than 14.4 degrees. Warming on that scale would be truly catastrophic.  Scientists say that even the 3.6-degree increase would spell widespread loss of life, so it’s hardly alarmist to view the risk of inaction as frightening”.

Frank points out that even a massive carbon tax of $300 per tonne CO2 – a very high tax since an $80 per tonne tax should do the trick – would raise US petrol prices to about where they are currently in Europe.

I totally endorse Frank’s closing lines:

“Most people would pay a substantial share of their wealth — much more, certainly, than the modest cost of a carbon tax — to avoid having someone pull the trigger on a gun pointed at their head with one bullet and nine empty chambers. Yet that’s the kind of risk that some people think we should take”.

8 comments to Robert Frank on climate catastrophes that can be averted at low cost

  • Rationalist

    Tax tax tax! That is the solution to everything according to these publicly funded scientists.

  • JimS

    My flatmate, a statistician doing a PhD on land use, made an equally scary point to me last night. Throughout Asia, rivers are having increased flows at the moment, and the farmers are happy about it. Less known to them is that the water flowing was locked up in glaciers 10,000 years ago, and when they run dry, the farmers will be, for lack of a better word, buggered.

    That wouldn’t be such a shame, except that those rivers currently support some two billion people. Perhaps the problem is that the gun is not pointed at the heads of those who should be paying the taxes.

  • I’m also an admirer of Bob Frank–he’s a smart and original guy. One problem with his argument, however, is that he is proposing large certain costs for very uncertain gains–we simply don’t know enough to predict what will or won’t happen ninety years from now.

    We not only don’t know the magnitude of the effects, we don’t even know the sign. We are currently in an interglacial that has lasted longer than average–for all we, at the present state of our knowledge, know, anthropogenic global warming is the reason the next glaciation hasn’t started yet. And a glaciation would be a climate catastrophe that would make the ones currently predicted look like wet firecrackers.

    A further problem is that his solution, if implemented, won’t be implemented by Robert Frank but by the U.S. congress and similar bodies elsewhere. A careful look at the cap and trade bill should convince him that the result won’t look much like what Frank, or Pigou, or Mankiw, who also supports carbon taxes, would advocate.

  • hc

    I don’t agree David. The possible cost of not dealing with climate change – or of waiting 50 or 60 years to find out what will happen – is enormous. The implications of getting it wrong and misjudging the extent of change – given the small chance it turns out to be much less than expected – are limited. IMO (contrary evidence?) climate scientists don’t believe that a heating up of the planet is likely to prevent the re-emergence of a new ice age – so that taking action now to prevent warming will produce bigger costs than doing nothing.

    The US has among the best universities and scientists in the world, among the world’s highest living standards and yet bewilderingly high levels of community ignorance as exhibited by degraded popular cultures, beliefs in religious fundamentalism, denial of the basic sciences of climate and evolution and a right-wing adherence to the supreme value of markets – almost as a matter of religious conviction – even in the face of starkly self-evident global environmental and financial disasters. So yes, I agree, one can expect problems with Congress. But I hope you don’t fall for the denialist line. It is simple – as non-scientists we should believe the plausible science of climate.

  • derrida derider

    OT, Harry, but I believe that the failure of the US education and political systems to prevent that community ignorance is something the US will pay very dearly for in the long run – indeed it already is so paying. It is the ultimate cause of the decline of the US Empire.

    Not least of the inequalities that bedevil the US is the inequality in knowledge. Their elites may be the best educated – smartest even – in the world. Joe Sixpack, not so much. And they’re a democracy, so the hoi-polloi will win out in the end.

  • Alfred Nock

    David. Surely by buying into the global warming fraud this Robert Frank has revealed himself as a failed analyst.

    Harry. It is true that avoiding a CO2-induced warming catastrophe is a cheap thing to do. Since there is absolutely no prospect of such a catastrophe, obviously it costs nothing to avoid it.

    How about ditching your antagonism for the scientific method just this once? I don’t think thats too much to ask. If you yourself cannot specify an hypothesis and find evidence for it, do the decent thing and retract.

  • Jaben Maheno

    David. Surely by buying into the global warming fraud this Robert Frank has revealed himself as a failed analyst.

    Harry. It is true that avoiding a CO2-induced warming catastrophe is a cheap thing to do. Since there is absolutely no prospect of such a catastrophe, obviously it costs nothing to avoid it.

    How about ditching your antagonism for the scientific method just this once? I don’t think thats too much to ask. If you yourself cannot specify an hypothesis and find evidence for it, do the decent thing and retract.

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