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Perhaps this post should run on Earth Day. According to economic models of climate change, a warming of the planet will result in a reduction of “our” well being. Before I get to my point today notice that this argument also requires being clear about whether we are considering aggregate effects or individual ones. For now ignore that distinction which we said more about in yesterday’s post.

Today instead ask why a warmer planet would prove “costly” and consider the implications, one of which is understood and another which is rarely uttered in polite company.

First the reason a warmed planet is costly is that it will “force” adjustments to our behavior. No reason to go through what all of that is, but for example different groups will do better in different places as the climate warms. Adjusting to this takes time and will be costly. It’s not clear however that once this adjustment is made that a warmer planet will be any more costly than it was previously. I am almost sure that the prior sentence is going to be wildly misunderstood. We will say more about that in a future post.

But… But… we’re only talking about costs here (or net costs). Just as some people wish to impose a naturalist sort of ethical dimension to the computations of climate change’s costs, then it seems reasonable to add in the utility benefits a warmer planet will bring. Rising seas are a cost, yes, because we must adjust, but once they’ve risen maybe more pleasure will be had from the new variety of coastline? Maybe people prefer a warmer planet to a less warm one? And maybe this is true in spite of whatever risks may come. Isn’t this to be accounted for? After all, this sort of reasoning us used commonly elsewhere? Or are we to only focus on measurable costs and benefits?

But the more important point, which is not original to me, is that if sea levels fell it’s not the case that this is costless or even a benefit. If the planet cooled it’s not the case that it would be costless or a benefit. Since the planet is not optimized for us, and we adjust according to what it throws at us, then ANY climate change has to impose costs (and changes to utility). For example, almost all existing harbors would be rendered useless if the sea levels fell – many would be dry and inland!

I’m not going to discuss the policy implications of this today nor other insights. But to chum the waters a bit, I think it is possible to imagine a reasonable set of assumptions that can deliver a result that ANY change to the climate will make “us” better off once we consider both utility and direct benefits and costs of climate change. But that’s for another day.

6 Responses to “The World is Not Optimized for Us”

  1. Alex says:

    If we are currently living within a range of temperatures that characterize a stable state, then small increases in warmth or cooling won’t have relatively large costs.

    But isn’t the argument against climate change that ecosystems don’t react linearly to change; warming will eventually lead to abrupt and catastrophic shifts that will have very large costs associated with adapting to them. Enough small changes in eco-subsystems can lead to huge changes in the global ecosystem.

    You can factor in utility, but IF such a shift leads to mass extinction (I recognize such predictions rarely come true, but still…), it would be hard to argue that utility will be very high.

    • wintercow20 says:

      That argument relies on there being strong positive feedback loops in climate systems and in the ecology I have taken and in what the temperature record suggest is that we’d have to be talking about far more warming than even the most dire models predict in order to get to that point. From my reading of ecology might I also offer up the following observation: that stable climate can lead to the very same massive extinctions. If we allow certain bacteria, diseases, etc. to adapt to a moderate climate like we have today, isn’t it MORE likely that they will be able to wipe out entire species than if the entire climate system is changing regularly in any direction?

      And I’d also remind folks that the early climate worries did not depend on catastrophe in order to justify action. When temperature records have failed to match model predictions for a pretty long stretch now, the game, so to speak, has changed.

      • Harry says:

        Wintercow, early climate worries were expressed as if we were buying a cheap insurance policy, on one hand that all we had to do was buy a car with a catalytic converter, and on the other hand Pascal’s wager. Unless you camped with a true believer in Luddism, the catastrophe and the draconian measures to prevent it were undersold.

    • Harry says:

      Alex, nobody argues against climate change.

      My Uncle’s reply when asked what the stock market would do was, “It will fluctuate.” I wish I could take credit for that observation.

    • Harry says:

      How do know we are living in a world of temperatures in a stable state, Alex? We have no idea about this, except for the general observation that we have not had ice ages for the last few thousand years, which indeed is supported by evidence from the ice core people and the tree ring people.

      It was just about seventy years ago that in some places we had airports that recorded temperature because it was important to do this to figure out whether the plane would fly according to a slide rule calculation. Fifty years ago some physics and chemistry labs had digital scales, but not in Paraguay, where who knows what the temperature was when the DC3 landed, but you can bet some places were hot and humid in December.

      So, when a meteorologist on The Weather Channel says global warming is real, are we wrong to ask how she comes to that conclusion, and are we to be Holocaust/global warming deniers?

  2. Harry says:

    The argument was we had to move swiftly. This was Al Gore’s argument when he was an influential Senator, writing in Earth in the Balance.

    Lest someone accuse me of setting up a straw man, literally, Al is not regarded as a hypocritical buffoon around the conference tables in the Sierra Club, among lawyers not smiling. These folks have bought Al’s act, and are determined to keep western civilization to 1992 CO2 levels, which brings us to Wintercow’s point about Goldilocks and her conceit.

    Who knows who will be harmed as the weather, affected far more by what happens on the Sun than minuscule changes in trace gasses, changes? We all agree climate change is very likely, and because of its complexity, unpredictable. Forget the butterfly effect, think Kim Jong Un who sees a butterfly and goes postal after four big Crown Royals. We cannot control him, either.

    Maybe WC’s Canadian fans would be happy if it were a degree warmer or two. We will have time to prepare, assuming Un does not lob a nuke toward Tokyo and turns his world into glass .

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