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Flippant Feelings

My employer recently held a conference on Global Climate Change. A blow-by-blow account will be forthcoming. In the meantime I was struck by a several themes than ran through the conference, particularly among the presenters. We had world renowned climate scientists, economists and theologians here addressing this important issue.

  1. To a man, almost every person here overtly indicated that human population is bad. One had the feeling of sitting in a 19th century classroom led by Reverend Malthus. The source of this belief is twofold. First, some presenters confound the problems which are a result of human institutional arrangements (such as large population increases in areas that are prone to weather disasters) with “problems” which may result from the number of people. Second, most presenters were implicitly considering the human race as parasitic. However, the record of human history clearly demonstrates that humans actually produce things. Standards of living could not have increased at all if humans consumed more than they produced. Here, the scientists were behaving very unscientific. Human beings are, as Julian Simon coined, the “ultimate resource.”

  2. There are finite, and certain, quantities of fossil fuels in the ground. I heard from multiple scientists that there are “100 years of oil left”, “100 years of natural gas left,” and “500 years of coal left.” Not only is it shocking to hear physical scientists ignore the possibility that we might actually find more reserves of these fuel sources, it is also shocking to recognize how easily they dismiss efficiency improvements, and perhaps most striking how ignorant they are of how the price system affects “how much is left in the ground.”

  3. Allowing for the economic oversight of #2, it was widely accepted that there are still enormous amounts of coal left in the ground. Scientists project that there is enough coal in the ground to power the earth’s needs for the next half-millenium! And that all known reserves of fossil fuels are enough to power the earth for the next 1000 years, roughly. It strikes me that current environmental policy on global warming is akin to asking residents of Cleveland to find ways to quench their thirst for water without being able to use Lake Erie. Given the costliness of currently available alternative energy technologies and difficulty in scaling many of them up, I was floored by how little attention was paid to figuring out ways to make these existing resources cleaner and more efficient. Clearly, their prices viz. other energy sources will be very low for a very long time.

  4. The scientists were very clear on the fact that the climate models are extremely complex and we actually still know very little about the climate as a whole, despite knowing a lot about many of the small components of it. Many in the audience took this to support their preconceived view that the climate models used by the IPCC vastly exaggerate the potential damages from future CO2 emissions and warming. That may be true. But there is nothing about this uncertainty that should be taken as evidence that it works in only a single direction. The models could all just as well be under-predicting the horrible scenarios of the future. And is is precisely this issue that should concern economists and policymakers.

  5. At this conference, which was supposed to be scientific, neutral, expository, etc. … nobody had their views changed, much less challenged in my opinion. I tend to be on the skeptical side of things – not in the sense that the planet is not warming, but to the extent that it makes sense to “unwarm it.” I was not presented with any evidence to change my opinion. And I do not see that any economist or scientist presented material which might cause people to question their deeply held beliefs on the matter. And given the complex nature of the climate science (which was recognized) I see this as a terrible failing. Shouldn’t the uncertainty in the modeling and attribution of climate change be accompanied by some humility in policy prescriptions? Apparently not.

Note that #1 and #2 arise because people do not have an appreciation for the workings of the price system. Perhaps the major failing of our conference was to not have this issue front and center.


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