Debates about climate have become commonplace in the mainstream media over the last five years. Whether intentionally or not, much of the ink spilt has been quite misleading (particularly in reporting the degree of disagreement amongst climate scientists over the basic claims that global climate is shifting dangerously largely due to human activity). Nonetheless, some pieces stand out as worth reading.
One of them is by Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist, and he has written a very readable article in the NYT discussing the economics of action (and inaction) on climate change. Although it has a few relatively minor mistakes on the climate science, it serves as a good introduction to some of the economic issues associated with an increasingly chaotic global climate. You can find the full article here. Here is a taste:
"The truth is that there is no credible research suggesting that taking strong action on climate change is beyond the economy’s capacity. Even if you do not fully trust the models — and you shouldn’t — history and logic both suggest that the models are overestimating, not underestimating, the costs of climate action. We can afford to do something about climate change."His conclusion?
"[...] it’s the nonnegligible probability of utter disaster that should dominate our policy analysis. And that argues for aggressive moves to curb emissions, soon."The likelihood of such aggressive moves has been fairly low for some time. The chance of even timid moves in both the US and Australia have taken significant hits in the last week. Prime Minister Rudd has pushed back the possible implementation of an ETS until 2013; in the US, Republican Senator Graham has walked out of bipartisan negotiations days before a new energy and climate bill was due to be launched in the Senate due to reports that Democrats might try to debate immigration before the new bill.
When Krugman speaks of a "nonnegligible probability of utter disaster", what does he mean? He's talking about the (increasingly less) distant possibility that global average temperatures rise by 5ºC (9ºF) or more before 2100, disrupting the climate patterns humanity has known since the rise of agriculture. To give a small sense of the scale of this disruption, the difference in average temperatures between the last ice age and the present era of human civilisation is about 5ºC. Attempting to adapt to a climate shift of that magnitude and speed would be like trying to adapt to a train wreck as it unfolds.