Claim: The costs of halting CO2 rise would be crippling to world economic progress, and we should not commit to drastic action until we can prove with certainty that man and fossil fuel burning is causing global warming.

Why this claim is wrong: This IEA report (2008) estimates it will take only about 1% of world annual GDP from now till 2050 in order to reduce CO2 emission rates to 50% of current levels, which is estimated to confine global warming to an additional 2 degrees C above current levels (however, sadly, this is almost certainly now too optimistic, based on the last few years of data and studies). This is still very serious warming with serious consequences, but there is at least a chance it is not completely catastrophic, like the ~6 degrees C which the "business as usual" scenario calculations indicate. Halting CO2 rises no doubt will have a serious impact on oil and coal company profits unless they change their business models, but these business interests should not define themselves as the world economy. Compare this to the projected costs to the United States of the "business as usual" scenario (2008 scientific study, summarized here) in just four areas: increased damage from hurricanes, from real estate losses, from energy sectors losses, and water resources - at 1.8% of GDP. Including other costs, such as disease, wildlife loss, etc raises this to 3.6% of GDP. Impacts to other poorer nations will be even more severe. In 2009, scientists at the International Institute for Environmental Development at the Imperial College of London find that the net present (present=2008) value of the costs of climate change without adaptation at $1,240 trillion, and $890 billion with adaptation. $1,240 trillion corresponds to $177,000 for every man, woman, and child on Earth. Since the large majority of human population have net economic lifetime value much less than this figure, I think it's fair to characterize such costs as "astronomical". And these estimates are based on the rather under-estimated severity of climate change from earlier IPCC estimates. I can't help thinking - what's the value of the only planet in the Galaxy that we know can support complex life? Is it even a meaningful question to ask?

Here's a good link to the economics of global warming which itself links articles in peer-reviewed journals on costs vs various mitigation strategies. Finally, and this is most important - the argument from uncertainty is simply, outrageously self-serving for the carbon merchants. Even assuming we know less about the consequences of anthropogenic CO2 than we actually do, that uncertainty includes the possibility that the consequences will be MORE severe than estimated (as indeed, new evidence continues to indicate). An everyday example - you see what looks, by the evidence, to be cancerous melanoma growing on your face. Would you not go to the doctor because it'll be expensive and frightening, arguing to yourself that after all you can't PROVE to yourself that it's cancer? This attitude of inaction flies in the face of every sound principle of risk and insurance, even if by inaction the odds of climate disaster were small (which they are certainly not).

Lloyd's of London, one of the world's largest insurers, is better anchored to reality - and has advised the insurance industry and national security agencies that climate change is real, human-caused, and will be extremely costly. The IEA study was done based on data from 2007 and earlier, and is clearly now too conservative in projected damage estimates. Every year we wait, the costs escalate. More recent studies (see here, here, and here) show that fee-and-dividend approaches to limiting carbon provide net economic benefit. See the "Strategies" page for more information. In 2014, a 61 page study completed by the economics research group Regional Economic Models, Inc. finds that a variety of revenue-neutral carbon fee-and-dividend strategies for California "could mean 300,000 new jobs in California by 2035, and extra $18B in GDP, and an additional $16B in annual income, together with carbon emissions less than 75% of 1990 levels." (REMI 2014). While carbon emissions need to be reduced drastically more than to 75% of 1990 levels, this study at least shows that the higher the tax, the greater the benefit as long as it is revenue-neutral and the carbon tax goes to the people.

A new study by the IPCC on climate change mitigation finds that a switch to a low-carbon future in time to limit global temperature rise to +2C would not significantly affect economic growth . If economic growth is used as the standard for human happiness (this is highly questionable), then it's hard to make an argument against aggressively pursuing a low carbon future. This study used climate modeling which neglects potentially very important amplifying feedbacks - so perhaps this justifies only cautious optimism.

Another new study shows that the damage to third world countries will be bad enough to reduce their credit ratings, making it difficult for them to get loans to deal with the damage, and also likely setting in motion the financial chaos which took down the emerging markets in '09 and '11.

And finally, because increasing global coal use is outpacing the progress towards renewable energy, in 2014 the cost of de-carbonizing our energy infrastructure to a level sufficient to limit global temperature rise to +2 C has risen in just two years by 22%, to $44 trillion according to the International Energy Agency.

Update 2014
Much hated by the Republicans, government-funded help in renewable energy start-ups have turned out to be profitable for taxpayers.

In Short: Studies show it might still (at least in 2008) be possible to confine global warming to a "serious" +2 C but not yet "catastrophic" +6 C or more rise, for vastly less than the cost of doing little or nothing. But it's the sellers of oil and coal who will take the first costs to halting CO2 emissions, while it's the rest of us and our children who will pay dearly the costs of doing nothing. However, both the cost of heading off the worst of global warming, and the cost to the future of continuing on our present course, are accelerating very rapidly. Update: Confining to +2C now looks impossible . In the past 5 years, policy foot-dragging, data, and models have all made things significantly more pessimistic. This only adds to the urgency, not rationalizations for do-nothing, because the effects are, for all human time scales, permanent. If extremely aggressive low-carbon strategies are begun immediately, we might be able to still hold climate change to something less than catastrophic, however.


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