The Economist’s Will Wilkinson has written what is sure to be a controversial blog post on climate change. He argues for taking a wait-and-see approach, citing both a great deal of uncertainty in the actual economic costs of climate change and the often-ignored economic costs of restricting carbon emissions:
Dramatic warming may exact a terrible price in terms of human welfare, especially in poorer countries. But cutting emissions enough to put a real dent in warming may also put a real dent in economic growth. This could also exact a terrible humanitarian price, especially in poorer countries. Given the so-far unfathomed complexity of global climate and the tenuousness of our grasp on the full set of relevant physical mechanisms, I have favoured waiting a decade or two in order to test and improve the empirical reliability of our climate models, while also allowing the economies of the less-developed parts of the world to grow unhindered, improving their position to adapt to whatever heavy weather may come their way.
The article focuses primarily on the uncertainty in climate models while taking as given the enormous economic costs of reducing carbon emissions. I think this is a huge omission.
When we look at the developed world, which has had many decades to develop with access to cheap and bountiful fossil fuels, it is easy to conflate our prosperity with our ravenous energy consumption. Wouldn’t it be wrong, then, to deny developing countries the same opportunities? This sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking is something I normally don’t associate with Wilkinson, who is one of my favorite economics bloggers. Much of our current prosperity is not at all tied to burning fossil fuels: advances in agriculture, sanitation, medicine, information technology, and social and political institutions explain an enormous part of our present-day comfort here in the developed world. The trends that are tied to energy consumption—exurban sprawl, gigantic houses, mindless consumerism—are immiserating, not liberating.
Motor vehicle crashes kill 1.2 million people annually, many of them in the developing world. How much will this number rise when India, China, and the rest of the developing world continue to mimic the West in structuring their society around the automobile?
As I see it, the developing world has a tremendous opportunity: the opportunity to avoid making the enormous mistakes we have over the past century in developing our country for vehicles instead of people. Even if you believe that the costs of global warming are not as great as some make them out to be, you must also consider that the costs of reducing carbon emissions might not be as great as they seem. To conflate automobile ownership with progress is a vision straight out of 1950s America. That’s not the rubric against which we should measure our economic policies today.