Slate has published my reply to economist’s Steven Landsburg’s ill-informed hit-piece, “Save the Earth in Six Hard Questions: What Al Gore doesn’t understand about climate change.”
The editor wisely cut out some of my snarkier comments (Note to self: Slate is not Climate Progress!) but kept the title: “Save the Earth in Two Not-So-Hard Questions: What Steven Landsburg doesn’t understand about climate change” and the last paragraph:
Landsburg seems to believe that only economists can discuss climate change seriously, while the rest of us are wasting everyone’s time: “If you’re not talking about discount rates and levels of risk aversion, you’re blathering.” Landsburg’s piece proves that you can talk about those things and still be blathering.
I do have a serious point to make in the piece. There are two key questions that everyone in the climate change debate needs to answer:
- How great a threat does inaction on climate change pose for future generations’ quality of life–and for life itself?
- Will significant action on climate change require sacrificing our quality of life in any meaningful sense?
To see that the answer to the second question is a definite “no,” you need to define the threat in question 1, which I do at length in my book (and on Climate Progress) and briefly in the piece. My bottom line:
Now we know what truly meaningful “quality of life” losses future generations may face: Irreversible destruction of our coasts, hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, whole regions of the planet in permanent or near-constant drought, and massive species extinction on land and sea, to name but a few.
We must spend what it takes over the next few decades to avoid that fate, especially since it is only money and probably not more than 3% of GDP in 2050.
Landsburg offers a response to my article so lame it needs no detailed counter-response, since he doesn’t dispute a single point I make. He seems to think that economics provides a rigorous answer to the question of how much money we should spend to combat global warming. It doesn’t, especially not the vast majority of conventional economic analyses of climate change that Landsburg seems to favor, as I have argued previously (citing the important if too-neglected work of Harvard economist Martin Weitzman). Economics is one small piece of the puzzle that all of us must wrestle with.
Landsburg persists in his claim that these questions are critical: How much do we care about those future generations? How likely are they to be around in the first place? And how rich are they likely to be? Those are NOT the critical questions — The second and third question, as Landsburg poses them, are easily dismissed, as I do in the piece. The first question is meaningless until you answer my two questions, at which point the question answers itself. We obviously should care enough to avoid subjecting the next 50 generations to a ruined climate. Whether we do care enough, of course, remains to be seen, but that is not a question economics can answer, only time….