Nobelist Krugman offers Climate Economics 101, “claims of immense economic damage from climate legislation are as bogus, in their own way, as climate-change denial,” quotes Climate Progress

Even corporations are losing patience with the deniers: earlier this week Pacific Gas and Electric canceled its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest over the chamber’s “disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality” of climate change.

So the main argument against climate action probably won’t be the claim that global warming is a myth. It will, instead, be the argument that doing anything to limit global warming would destroy the economy. As the blog Climate Progress puts it, opponents of climate change legislation “keep raising their estimated cost of the clean energy and global warming pollution reduction programs like some out of control auctioneer.”

It’s important, then, to understand that claims of immense economic damage from climate legislation are as bogus, in their own way, as climate-change denial. Saving the planet won’t come free (although the early stages of conservation actually might). But it won’t cost all that much either.

So Paul Krugman wrote in his Friday NYT column, “It’s Easy Being Green.”  He provides more detail in two blog posts, “The textbook economics of cap-and-trade” and “Pigou, Glenn Beck, and the false case against cap-and-trade.”  For more, see my post “Intro to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost — one tenth of a penny on the dollar.”

Then on Monday, Krugman wrote another climate column, “Cassandras of Climate.”  It delivers a key political message:

I’m not, by the way, saying that the Obama administration was wrong to push health care first. It was necessary to show voters a tangible achievement before next November. But climate change legislation had better be next.

Why?  Because the climate situation is so damn dire.  As Krugman explains:

If you’ve been following climate science, you know what I mean: the sense that we’re hurtling toward catastrophe but nobody wants to hear about it or do anything to avert it.

And here’s the thing: I’m not engaging in hyperbole. These days, dire warnings aren’t the delusional raving of cranks. They’re what come out of the most widely respected climate models, devised by the leading researchers. The prognosis for the planet has gotten much, much worse in just the last few years.

What’s driving this new pessimism? Partly it’s the fact that some predicted changes, like a decline in Arctic Sea ice, are happening much faster than expected. Partly it’s growing evidence that feedback loops amplifying the effects of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are stronger than previously realized. For example, it has long been understood that global warming will cause the tundra to thaw, releasing carbon dioxide, which will cause even more warming, but new research shows far more carbon locked in the permafrost than previously thought, which means a much bigger feedback effect.

The result of all this is that climate scientists have, en masse, become Cassandras “” gifted with the ability to prophesy future disasters, but cursed with the inability to get anyone to believe them.

And we’re not just talking about disasters in the distant future, either. The really big rise in global temperature probably won’t take place until the second half of this century, but there will be plenty of damage long before then.

For example, one 2007 paper in the journal Science is titled “Model Projections of an Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern North America” “” yes, “imminent” “” and reports “a broad consensus among climate models” that a permanent drought, bringing Dust Bowl-type conditions, “will become the new climatology of the American Southwest within a time frame of years to decades.”

Yes, that is one of the studies I cite here a lot (most recently in “Dust Bowl-ification hits Eastern Australia “” next stop the U.S. Southwest“).

So if you live in, say, Los Angeles, and liked those pictures of red skies and choking dust in Sydney, Australia, last week, no need to travel. They’ll be coming your way in the not-too-distant future.

The bottom line of the two articles:

And as I pointed out in my last column, we can afford to do this. Even as climate modelers have been reaching consensus on the view that the threat is worse than we realized, economic modelers have been reaching consensus on the view that the costs of emission control are lower than many feared.

So the time for action is now. O.K., strictly speaking it’s long past. But better late than never.

You don’t need a Nobel Prize to figure that out, I hope!

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13 Responses to Nobelist Krugman offers Climate Economics 101, “claims of immense economic damage from climate legislation are as bogus, in their own way, as climate-change denial,” quotes Climate Progress

  1. ken levenson says:

    Seems to me an unfortunate symmetry:
    The NY Times has such strong columns on climate crisis and such muddled and weak news reporting. While The Washington Post has ignorant editorials showing they haven’t read their paper’s relatively strong reporting on the subject.

    We need strong asymmetrical action: great reporting and editorial writing. Shouldn’t be too much to ask, should it?

  2. Ken Johnson says:

    Krugman says “Saving the planet won’t … cost all that much …”. Does that mean the House climate bill would “save the planet”? Joe Romm gave Waxman-Markey only a “10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe,” and the UNEP projects a 6.3F end-of-century global temperature rise “even if industrialized and developed countries enact every climate policy they have proposed at this point”.

    The bill could nevertheless be a positive step forward if it does not impede complementary efforts to achieve further emission reductions and to set precedents for more effective federal action. But the House version would perversely do the exact opposite. States are free to pursue complementary GHG-reduction policies, but the allowances that would have otherwise been required to cover the eliminated emissions will still be allocated, and will allow greater emissions elsewhere. Unless the Senate provides a mechanism for taking those unneeded allowances out of the system, the trading system will nullify the environmental benefits of states’ climate programs and will, in effect, convert them into subsidy programs for fossil fuel industries.

    “It’s easy being green,” but saving the planet is harder. Waxman-Markey’s cheap and easy emission reductions may not be sufficient to save the planet, but the law should not deter and diminish the efforts of those who are able and willing to do more and to pay more to help avert climate catastrophe.

  3. RunawayRose says:

    Re #2 and #3: some kind of bot posting nonsense?

    For me Krugman was one of the few bright lights during the early part of the Bush administration; I always read his column, and I buy his books and try to understand them. (Not that the writing is bad or obscure – economics is just not my strongest subject. Getting better the more I read, though!)

    [JR: Bots are getting pesky!]

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    An Immense Gap

    There is an immense GAP among the wise and scientifically informed points and appeals of “Nobelist Krugman” (on the one hand), the business and journalistic approaches of “Leader Bill Keller” (on the other hand), and the various talented writers on the team who are left to muddle around within that who-knows-what context (on the third hand, and indeed it’s about as confusing as a person with three hands).

    We have Krugman reminding us of the immense importance and urgency of the matter. Yet, the paper itself can barely manage to provide front-page space to the issues (climate, energy), and when it does, the articles are usually whitewashed and focus on the “boxing match’. Often, key developments are not mentioned at all, anywhere in the paper, let alone on the front page.

    I would suggest this: If the matter is as important and urgent as the scientists say and as Krugman says, then there is no way that anyone who understands human psychology and communication can see The New York Times’ treatment of the subject (in the news) as being intelligent, responsible, or even remotely defendable. So, one must ask: Is Krugman wrong, OR are The Times’ owners and leaders substantially incompetent, OR do they not have their motives in a sensible and responsible place? Which is it?

    (It’s NOT that Krugman is wrong. So, it must be an issue of aims or incompetence, or both, at the leadership levels of The New York Times.)

    Any answers, anyone?



  5. paulm says:

    RunawayRose an so it seems that not many others do either based on recent event. Including the economist themselves.

    “The US in a sense is climate illiterate. It is a deeper problem in the US, if you look at global polls about what the public knows about climate change. Even in Brazil and China, you have more people who know the problem, who think that deep cuts in emissions are needed.”

    He predicted that it could be several years before the US would be willing to take on carbon cuts that were ambitious enough to persuade countries such as China to set targets of their own. At UN talks last week, China and India made small steps forward on this issue, but Obama was unable to do the same.

  6. ken levenson says:


    Seems to me that the Times is in danger of making the same historic mistake it did in its weak and muddled coverage of the rise of 1930s fascism. It’s a real pity.

    Clearly the climate crisis has the potential to be THE defining event in human/world history – beyond anything the rise of fascism could. It’s hard to fathom why it can’t garner it’s own ongoing section the way “the war on terror” did or the Iraq war etc… We are witnessing something that could well make the rise and fall of the Roman Empire look small. Yet it is reported like it’s the weather. It’s becoming unconscionable.

    As for positing an answer to your question – I think it is much more prosaic…the Times is infected with what I’d call a “cool kidz detachment”. In fearing “hysteria” they’d rather err on being cool. They really don’t like to dig or get “worked-up” and will bend over backwards to avoid it – they ARE “The Times”, and they are above it all… It is a bizarre dynamic and far too many of the reporters there buy into it. To my reading, Andy Revkin has bent over backwards to report the crisis in the most understated, ass-backward way possible – to the point where it feels he takes pleasure in needling “the activists”. (paranoid perhaps :) , but…) Classic cool kidz crap….

    Anyway, my 2cents….

  7. Gail says:

    paulm, realization will come sooner than anyone expects, at least, on the US east coast, where many policy makers live and/or work (Washington DC!), which is in freefall ecological collapse. Tonight, looking at the silhouettes of trees against the moonlit evening sky, it was so clear that within 2 years at most, we won’t have a leafed tree or conifer with needles left in the wild, or the suburbs, or cities.

    This will be quite awkward for deniers to explain away as natural.

  8. Jeff Huggins says:

    Ken (Comment 6),

    I agree with you. Well put.

    There is an amazing sort of detachment. I doubt (very much) whether they (The Times) recognize it, feel it, or think of it as detachment. My guess is that it’s just their way of doing things in a way that, conveniently, allows them to avoid hard work, hard choices, and upsetting a few advertisers.

    I think they may also think that it’s part of their role to be “sanitarily detached”, almost as a surgeon must be somewhat detached (personally) from patients, at least so much that she (or he) can focus on doing the surgery well and not get emotionally drained.

    But, the tasks are very different in key ways. A surgeon should maintain some degree of emotional separation (in some senses anyhow) in order to genuinely serve her patients’ interests — to preserve and save their lives, improve their health, and so forth. A surgeon must also wash her/his hands in order to avoid spreading germs. These things are all in the genuine direct interest of patients.

    But, the sort of “detachment” — seeming to be “above it all” — that The New York Times displays in its treatment of climate change is NOT AT ALL in the genuine best interests of readers or the broader general public. It’s either lazy or selfish or misinformed or all three. And indeed, such an approach is not even in The New York Times’ own long-term interests. Do they think the record of their coverage will just go away? Do they think that the climate change problem will just disappear and “get well”?

    In my view, if they don’t change (and quick), they are deep in the process of providing us with one of the biggest (and quite possibly THE biggest) example of journalistic failure ever seen in the history of professional journalism. I hate to say that, but I’ve been following the matter for over 18 months now, and that’s my assessment.

    Oh well. Sigh.


  9. Robert says:

    HOW SMOOTH THE RIDE GETS, as the train roles off the broken bridge over the GRAND CANYON! Thank you Ken (#6) for you remarks, as i agree that Andy Revkin works hard to satisfy his paymasters need to bend both ways. The monetary need, supplied by the vast 2 page advertisements in support of the Fossil Fool’s guarantees that Revkins wishy-washy ways will continue. We could call it the Stockholm Syndrome, wherein fear transforms a man to preempt the subconscious wishes of his controllers every whim! How quickly the puppet learns the dance!

  10. ken levenson says:


    I appreciate your visual regarding the train off the cliff.

    Here is another one: massive herds of buffalo being driven off the cliff. We are pushing many species off the cliff before us – polar bears, walruses and on down the line….it’s buffalo over the cliff all the way down.

    As for the NY Times. I actually don’t agree that they are beholden to their “paymasters” – they have great independence, when they want it.

    It really is a matter of The Times not wanting to take what they see as “risks” – they don’t like to dig, or get out in front on a story. A small quick example is that they sat on James Risen’s big scoop on illegal wiretaps for over a year! They only ran the story when Risen’s book was coming out and would scoop themselves! Pathetic! The sting of their Wen Ho Lee debacle left a deep wound and a reticent newsroom got even more gun shy. The classic Times m.o. is to come in after-the-fact and then put 100 reporters on it and in a matter of a few days “own” the story, as no other organization can compete with their resources.

    So while the pronouncements of the world’s most serious authorities on the climate crisis should be enough to get The NY Times on the story in a proportionate way – unfortunately, i think, because the climate crisis is a slow motion train wreck – it never penetrates their knee-jerk myopic sense of self-preservation.

    Because of their encyclopedic coverage of the world – they can always turn back and say, “see, we’ve done a ton of articles on climate change or this or that” regardless of the utility (or lack of utility) of the articles. The Times just wants to surf on top – once the “tragedy strikes” – they blow everyone away in coverage.

    Corruption is giving them too much credit – they’re poor reporting is not about corruption. It is a more pathetic and simple sense of insecurity.

    So the big question is: what will be the tipping point of The Times coverage? We need to hit The Times’ tipping point before we hit the natural feedback tipping points. (unless it’s too late…then we’ve got the classic set-up for The Times to mop up…)

  11. ken levenson says:

    perhaps i should add – with some trepidation – to give a bit of weight to my rants: i married a NY Times reporter….seriously….

  12. ken levenson says:

    i guess i should also be clear – i’m happily married!
    (she no longer works at The Times)

    I’ll take the opportunity to pimp one of her more important articles in the last couple of years (she broke the details of the Zubaydah interrogation and the role of psychologists in designing “enhanced interrogations”)

    she likes to dig. :)

  13. mike roddy says:

    It’s about the money, Jeff. The New York Times depends on advertising from Exxon and the rest of that crowd. Krugman is basically alone on the issue: the Science Editor, John Tierney, is a joke, and I can’t figure out what’s going on with Andy, who should know better. Keller is of course from an oil industry family, and is basically a prostitute who charmed and talked his way to the top. He and the other editors wouldn’t understand a piece of data if they tripped over it. You hear nothing there about the MIT study, for example, even on Dot Earth.

    Blogs like this one should eventually make NYT, the Washington Post, and USA Today irrelevant and out of business, and they will get what they deserve.