March 26, 2014

If Climate Change is uncertain, should we wait to address it?

No, that would be a mistake.

The unspoken assumption here is that the proposed remedies are materially damaging to human economy or society, so we should wait.

That is misinformation, which comes primarily from the industries that are resisting change. In fact, the proposed remedies (efficiency, electrification of transportation, etc.) would have both short term and long term economic benefits. For instance, car makes have fought desperately against increases in the CAFE regulation, when such improvements would save consumers enormous amounts of money over the lifetimes of their vehicles.

Oil is very expensive compared to the alternatives. New land-based windpower is cheaper than new US coal plants (because they scrub sulfur, mercury, etc). The UK is finding windpower expensive only because they’re not willing to install land based wind turbines – apparently they’d rather spend a lot more money putting turbines out to sea. Of course, if fossil fuel interests weren’t encouraging such astroturf, the UK would have a more sensible policy.

The problem is that the cost falls on a narrow part of society (investors and workers in industries that emit CO2), and the benefits are much more widely spread. If you’ve invested your life’s work (or your money) in oil or coal (or internal combustion engines, etc.) then you’re going to fight the transition away from fossil fuels. That’s easy to understand, and one can have compassion for those who are caught in such a bind. Still, the larger society can’t avoid the transition. Ideally, the larger society would find a way to soften the blow. But, the blow must come, and the sooner the better.

The cost of a transition away from fossil fuels is, in fact, much smaller than the cost of staying with them. Even the immediate, obvious costs of fossil fuels are higher than the costs of alternatives. But, those who benefit from fossil fuels wish to misinform us on this topic, purely to protect themselves.

The cartoon in this reputable economist's blog is worth a 1,000 words: