The Green New Deal article I published last week (“The Green New Deal Has Already Worked,” March 5) struck a nerve, particularly the part about climate change. I received a ton of feedback, some of which I’ll put at the end of this article (so read it through!).
Many of you agreed with my view of the Green New Deal (GND) plan as both unworkable and not the main point, while others noted we’ve got to address climate change starting now.
Several of you took me to task for not offering a solution. Well, let’s do that today.
I’ve studied climate change for some time, and while the space constraints of Economy & Markets won’t allow me to fully air the research, I can give a sense of it.
How Warm Will it Get?
The best temperature modeling came together in the late 1990s, and we started tracking temperature with these models in 2000.
Since that time, only one has been accurate, model INM-CM4, so let’s follow what that one has to say about the future. This model calls for temperatures to increase modestly over the next 80 years if we do nothing. The average temperature has remained well below the average estimate of all the models combined.
There’s no question it’s warmer than before the Industrial Revolution, but the most accurate model over the 20 years we’ve been focused on this is not calling for dramatically higher temperatures.
We need to determine why the forecasts have been wrong, and what makes this one model accurate.
What’s in the Assumptions?
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Climate Assessment (NCA) use an emission assessment from 2007 that doesn’t account for the move from coal to natural gas, a move that has already started in earnest.
As this trend continues, societies will mitigate some of the estimated climate change because it is cheap and efficient to do so, not because of government mandates.
Going At It Alone Won’t Work
Most countries that signed onto the Paris Agreement aren’t anywhere close to their targets, and it’s already been four years. The U.S. accounts for only 15% of new greenhouse gas emissions, so our efforts at curbing emissions are just one-sixth of any possible solution. Countries like China and India, with more than 2.5 billion people between them, would have to dramatically shift their energy structure over the next 12 years for the efforts in the U.S. to bring about the changes discussed in the GND and elsewhere.
The Cost of Mitigation is Astronomical
The total U.S. cost of mitigating climate change is somewhere between $1.3 trillion and $14 trillion, depending on whom you ask. Just as with any spending, we should ask if the outcome is worth the investment. Or if there is a less expensive option that provides a substantial amount of the desired result.
What if We Don’t?
Per the IPCC and the NCA, if the temperature rises as forecast, U.S. GDP would expand by 385% instead of 400%. Granted, that doesn’t speak to localized effects in low-lying coastal areas, but there is zero question that as the temperature increases, people will adapt.
Prices for land in low areas will decline over time, and populations will move. They won’t wait for 81 years to look out the window and then be surprised to see water.
The point is that populations have always adapted as the environment has changed, and this will be no different.
Is Climate Change the Best Use of Funds?
The Copenhagen Consensus asks economists to list the major challenges facing humanity, assign a cost, and then prioritize how to spend the world’s limited funds. Climate change makes the list… at number six.
In terms of improving the lot of humanity, other initiatives like eradicating malnutrition in pre-schoolers, eradicating malaria, wider immunizations, and de-worming children would have a much greater positive effect for the dollars spent.
What We Can Do
In the U.S., we can continue down the path we’re on, replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas plants. We could also dramatically reduce our carbon footprint by re-evaluating nuclear energy, which remains the most reliable, low-carbon, and safest source of reliable energy available, even with accidents around the world.
We can use Miami as an example of how coastal communities can work to abate some of the effects of rising sea levels by implementing new building codes and developing new drainage systems.
We can also explore geo-engineering approaches that might ease some of the expected warming.
One approach is to create clouds of water vapor over parts of the ocean simulating low-lying clouds, which would stop the ocean beneath from absorbing as much sunlight. If the project created unintended bad consequences, it could be stopped immediately and the vapor would disappear rapidly.
Geo-engineering gets a bad rap because if it works, then people will be less inclined to move away from fossil fuels. This goes back to determining the goals before we start measuring and attacking the problem.
Is this about improving the lot of humanity while being good stewards of the environment? Or is it about moving away from fossil fuels at any cost and redistributing assets from wealthy countries to poorer nations?
Before we can agree on solutions, we have to agree on the problem.
Now, let me share some of the feedback I received. I don’t have space here to include all the messages.
Norton S. wrote:
You do a good job of bashing the GND, but do not present an alternative. As you say, a carbon tax is a drop in the bucket. Even a massive energy infrastructure program is not the answer. We face a constellation of interacting issues, many related to climate, but others such as resource depletion, over fishing, land erosion, toxic chemicals. Not to mention debt and a political system that has lost its legitimacy and ability to govern effectively.
We live in an illusory world, pretending that we are divorced from the ecosystem that supports us. … It seems to be a flaw in the human psyche. Every civilization that has gone before us has collapsed, some like the Mayan Culture disappeared completely, others like the British Empire merely contracted by 95%. But as far we know no country foresaw the collapse and planned for the transition.
We have a choice to make the transition in an orderly way or let events dictate the path. Is the GND a step in that direction? Yes, but not nearly radical enough to be effective. By the time it is diluted by the legislative process it will be more or less meaningless.
Donald W. said,
[The GND] is pure unadulterated garbage. It’s a ploy to gain more control over the citizenry as well as extract hundreds of billions of dollars in new asinine taxes. Anyone who votes for this pile of horse dung is a blithering idiot.
Craig H. was succinct,
Spot on description. It is terrifying on the surface and disastrous in reality.
Rob A. said,
Wow, your article hit home. Our new Democratic governor here in Michigan is doing the same thing, pushing for a 45 cent a gallon tax increase to pay for roads, the mea teachers union and other largess. So we the tax payers are getting played again by this governor and all the other politicians who like to spend OPM other people’s money…
This will not end well. First market crash, then Federal Reserve will really start printing QEing trillions to pay all the debt, and we get inflation and high interest rates like the 1970s. Stagflation.
Finally, Thomas S. wrote,
Dear Mr. Johnson,
You seem to have missed the point on climate change. Certainly we will have to do things to mitigate the effects of climate change, however you miss the science that shows climate change is accelerating in a cascade effect. The warming that has already happened is causing the release of even more greenhouse gasses that, until now, have been sequestered in places like the Alaskan and Siberian tundras.
Every day that we delay taking action to slow the emission of greenhouse gasses makes the problem worse. If we don’t take action to slow it down, no amount of mitigation will make it possible for human beings to live on this planet. It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a matter of prioritization. We are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Again, thank you to all who responded. I appreciate your feedback!
The content of our articles is based on what we’ve learned as financial journalists. We do not offer personalized investment advice: you should not base investment decisions solely on what you read here. It’s your money and your responsibility. Our track record is based on hypothetical results and may not reflect the same results as actual trades. Likewise, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Certain investments such as futures, options, and currency trading carry large potential rewards but also large potential risk. Don’t trade in these markets with money you can’t afford to lose. Delray Publishing LLC expressly forbids its writers from having a financial interest in their own securities or commodities recommendations to readers.