38 Comments
Nov 27, 2023Liked by Andrew Dessler

There are as many different types of economists (and different personalities) as there are scientists. The economists at the Environmental Defense Fund and all those we work with take the dangers of climate changes extremely seriously and are spending our lives working out how to design effective policies and actions to make reaching 1.5, or at least 2 degrees possible - and how to do it while improving distributional equity.

The economics literature on the 'social cost of carbon' suggests a cost per ton of at least US$190 (US EPA proposal). It's not these estimates that are constraining the ambition of climate policies - if we had regulation that strong everywhere most of the problem would be solved already. And those who work on the social cost of carbon recognise that these are significant under-estimates. Incorporating global inequality would raise those costs 2 or 3 times at least as explained by these top economists. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/701900 Don't just listen to the most vocal 'macro-economists' - they don't reflect us all.

Expand full comment
Nov 27, 2023Liked by Andrew Dessler

Do behavioral economists have similar perspectives to this, or are they more measured? When I look up work/discussions on climate change by Daniel Kahneman, for instance, I see a lot of pessimism in the human spirit to tackle this economically. A very different---but IMO equally concerning---challenge to enable dismissal of action. But this is not an area I am very familiar with.

Expand full comment
Nov 27, 2023Liked by Andrew Dessler

Bravo! for punching holes in the Panglossian fantasy that 3 or 4 degrees C presents no problem. Those people need to talk with insurers, who are already feeling the costs. It’s also good to point out that there is no “green premium” - i.e., economic penalty to implement renewable energy. (It may have been Bill Gates who used the “green premium” in his book of some years ago; would he still say that?)

Expand full comment
Nov 27, 2023Liked by Andrew Dessler

As a student of economics, this is not surprising. I had a graduate class where the professor maintained that money invested affected the GDP identically whether it was for subsidizing childcare or building missiles. I and some of my classmates pointed out that these had dramatically different societal value and he commented that this made no difference from a theoretical point of view. Sigh...

Expand full comment

"Climate science has made successful predictions for decades."

This is true. It's also made a lot of unsuccessful predictions for decades. For instance, the New York Times quoted "some experts" in 1995: "At the most likely rate of rise, some experts say, most of the beaches on the East Coast of the United States would be gone in 25 years." (full article is here:https://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/18/world/scientists-say-earth-s-warming-could-set-off-wide-disruptions.html) At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it's now been 28 years, and no beaches, as far as I know, are "gone". There is, and has been, erosion, and beaches have been "replenished" by dumping sand dredged out of the ocean, but this practice has been ongoing for the last 100 years.

Climate models published in the 1980s and 1990s routinely forecast warming up to 6-8C by 2100; current models seem to have settled to around 2-3C by that time.

I point this out not to impugn the competence of climate scientists, but to point out the limitations in their modeling.

"In reality, we have no idea how bad the impacts of climate change will be." I suppose this is true. The "known unknowns" are large, and the number of "unknown unknowns" is limited only by imagination. This is a good argument for taking feasible, practical actions to reduce future warming while working to deal with the warming we are seeing, and will continue to see. But it's not an argument for doing anything and everything that might help, no matter the cost.

"And given how grim things are looking with our present 1.2°C of warming" This is the real weak point of the argument. There are certainly impacts from climate change, which will continue. But humans have been changing the climate and the ecology for at least the last 5,000 years. 7 billion humans can't help changing the ecology. But the best way to protect against the effects of climate change is also the best way to protect against natural disasters of all kinds: make society more prosperous so we can afford to change what can be changed and deal with what comes anyway. This applies especially for the countries that are now the biggest greenhouse gas emitters - like it or not, they will build up their economies to make their people more prosperous. Whatever warming come from that is the world we will live in.

"And the rate of innovation in renewable energy is such that 2°C is certainly within reach — it’s mainly a question of political will." If this claim means anything, it means that (someone) needs to muster the political will to spend however much is required to decarbonize the economy. If it won't cost anything, then no political will is needed. The people analyzing scenarios for net zero emissions say it will cost a lot.

Expand full comment

I have a couple of comments. The first is that the evaluation of good climate policies requires the expertise of economists, scientists and engineers/technologists. Recognizing that few members of any one of these three groups are broadly experts with in and across their respective group, and that fewer still are truly experts in either of the other two, we shouldn't be surprised that each group, in mass, uses different methods and puts forth different recommendations than the other two.

Expand full comment

It's definitely true that economists get things wrong, and in fact the not-very-good arguments you cite in your post were indeed called out... by an economist. The "economists be like" approach isn't that helpful for understanding the contribution economics does make; and let's face it we don't stand a chance of fixing things without it.

Radical idea... consult some economists about what is going on in the field, and write about that. For a peek at some actually good research, see Ishan Nath's paper "how much will global warming cool global growth":

https://www.ishannath.com/research

Expand full comment

I've asked Kalshi.com for a market on how many billion-dollar disasters per year declared by NOAA.

https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/billions/

Expand full comment

Is the glass half empty or half full? You tend to find you go looking for. I worked in fusion for 34 years and so I tend to be an optimist. It is a job prerequisite. Although, based on my experience, I am skeptical of promises that it can help us get to net-zero in the next 30 to 40 years.

Good news and optimism based on progress and projections about the energy transition is not that hard to find. Even the WSJ this week thinks there is room for optimism, https://www.wsj.com/business/energy-oil/now-for-some-good-news-about-climate-27236f56?st=272jeb7ceqhikta&reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink

Renewables have grown globally at the rate of 17% the last seven years, if we can keep that up we will triple renewables by 2030, https://www.carbonbrief.org/qa-why-deals-at-cop28-to-triple-renewables-and-double-efficiency-are-crucial-for-1-5c/ . I live in NM and I follow the electrical sector closely. We are on track to at least double and maybe triple the amount of renewables here.

I try to follow thought leaders and influencers including energy system experts like Jesse Jenkins from Princeton and John Bistline from EPRI. As part of the process, I have put together my own list of reasons to be optimistic.

1. Coal is dying in the U.S. The percentage of electrical generation by coal decreased from 51.7% to 19.7% between 2000 and 2022. The last coal plant over 100 MW in the U.S. went online 2013. It will probably be the last one ever built. Ref. EIA

2. Specific emissions of electrical generation in the U.S. have dropped by 40% between 2000 and 2022 from 650 kg/MWh to 390 kg/MWh. Ref. EIA.

3. Renewable generation surpassed coal and nuclear in the U.S. in 2022. When combined with nuclear, carbon-free sources now account for nearly 40% of the electrical generation in the U.S. Ref. EIA.

4. The only fossil fuel competitive with renewables in the U.S. is natural gas. It emits 57% less CO2 per MWh compared to coal, 443 kg/MWh vs 1025 kg/MWh. If it displaces coal, it is still a win. Most utilities see it as transition source on their way to carbon-free generation. Ref. John Bistline.

5. Rocky Mountain Institute analyzed the Integrated Resource Plans of 104 utilities in the U.S. through 2035. Those utilities plan to deploy greater than 4 times more carbon free generation than natural gas generation between now and 2035.

6. 80% of U.S. utility customer account are served by utilities that have net-zero emission targets by or before 2050. Ref. Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Expand full comment

Thought provoking as always. I don't get terribly torqued up by any specific economist pronouncement, since as a profession they continually offer a mind-numbing range of forecasts and opinions that in retrospect are often entirely wrong. Given what we know about climate science and the negative impacts see to date, I'd suggest adopting the precautionary principle and assume the almost worst is likely and act accordingly.

Expand full comment

Polticians tend to listen to economists who talk about effects on GDP because that GDP correlates best with how likely it is for them to get re-elected. These economists tend to be Chicago School and are known to ignore and be dismissive of any other economists who try to debate the policies they advocate. Unfortunately economics does not have the same robust peer review process as most academic fields. Hence this issue keeps coming up on the fringes of economics but is as ever, ignored. A recent previous attempt to bring sanity into the discussion by Keen et al 2022 is a case in point. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2117308119

Expand full comment

I'll bet those models also assume an infinite supply of oil and gas in the ground. How can someone call themselves a professional and do such obviously sloppy work?

Expand full comment

"oceans will acidify, sea level will rise hundreds of feet"

You do yourself a great disservice by being scientifically WRONG and scientifically misleading in your writing. The oceans will never turn to acid; they will become less alkaline, just as they have done many times in the geological past. And the melting of the planet's ice will raise sea levels by 230 feet (according to the US Geological Survey) and will take 5000 years (according to National Geographic), giving humanity lots of time to adapt or to properly solve our fossil fuel problems).

I now consider all of your predictions to be suspect.

Expand full comment

Thank you for sharing your opinions and links to new information. In the past I have questioned what might be the relationships among these factors: GDP, CO2, population growth. It's not a stretch to believe that CO2 emissions (Mauna Loa data) are "correlated" with GDP (a surrogate for work that require fossil fuels) and population growth (which demands more food, housing, goods and services, etc., which are dependent upon fossil fuels). cheers

Expand full comment

The 2014 cost estimates of how much it would cost to hold global warnings to 1.5-2 degrees were probably overestimated at the time. They were not based on the least-cost policy taxation of net CO2 emissions. And those cost have dropped significantly since then. Unfortunately we have still not embarked on the least cost solution. Given political opposition to taxation of net CO2 emissions [but this "given" is at least partly the fault of environmentalists not pushing for it], subsidizing zero CO@ emitting technologies is probably better than nothing, but I do not think it will be enough. I sincerely hope we will move to taxation of net CO2 emissions before it is too late.

Expand full comment
Comment removed
Expand full comment