The inability of mainstream economists to grapple with the consequences of unrestrained global warming has been a recurring theme at ThinkProgress Green. However, the gold medal for sociopathic insouciance about a world of unimaginable biodiversity collapse, global desertification, the death of the oceans, and the inevitable wars and chaos that would bring would have to go to Karl Smith, one of the bloggers at the influential economics blog Modeled Behavior. In his post “In Praise of Dirty Energy: There Are Worse Things Than Pollution and We Have Them,” the assistant professor of public economics and government at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill argues that despite the risks, “we should pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North American regarding fossil fuel production.”
Smith claims to accept the science of climate change, but waves off the threat of rapid, accelerating global warming caused by a deliberate increase in fossil fuel pollution with a strain of blind techno-optimism that would make Dr. Pangloss blush. In what might be his most telling “solution” to unchecked global warming, Smith says that the billions of people living in parts of the world which will become marginally habitable or uninhabitable can just migrate to Siberia, which by that time will have turned into a dark, fetid swamp, releasing billions of tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that will accelerate climate change in a reinforcing feedback loop.
Honestly, it’s too psychologically disturbing to go through Smith’s post and discuss in detail why a world in which most existing species go extinct isn’t going to be one where billions of people are lifted out of poverty through free trade, and progressive leaders in Canada and Russia welcome the newly prosperous climate migrants with open arms, and our weather machines will cheaply fix any “intolerable” damage. So I’m just going to quote it in full:
The primary concern is that this would make it most difficult to meet our aggressive targets in controlling global warming. I stress, not impossible, because no one can predict the future of alternative energy development. I tend to think solar will come to dominant energy production in a matter of decades regardless, because the fundamentals are becoming so cheap.
However, even if we have to face the warming, we face it in the future with a much richer and more progressive world.
The raw wealth accumulation in third world will make much of the transition cost effective. As global manufacturing leaves China for Southeast Asia and eventually Africa billions of people will be lifted out of poverty. These people will adjust their living patterns anyway. They will build new cities and new infrastructure. If they do it in a way that is sensitive to climate change then there is little marginal cost.
An expansion in global trade production also means that local agriculture becomes less important. Farming will become harder in the Congo but easier in Russia. This is fine if the Congo has something to sell to Russia. Growth and trade mean that the costs are greatly ameliorated.
Opposition to immigration is concentrated in the older cohorts of most Western Societies. As they die off the younger generation will be more cosmopolitian and more welcoming of immigrants. This means that a large part of the harmful effects of climate change will be mitigated simply because so many people move to North America and Siberia over the next 100 years.
We will lose species, there is no question about that. An effort to capture and catalog them genetically should be done. However, I caution us against putting too much weight on the flora and fauna that we have. The vast majority of species have gone extinct. We are left with a very small set that happen to have thrived in these conditions. It’s not clear that they are somehow fundamentally superior to what will come next, and of course something will come next.
There remains the possibility of geo-engineering. If we really decide that climate change is intolerable there are things we could do to stop it. The very fact that the side effect of energy production is inducing this process tells us how sensitive the climate can be to our interventions. That likewise means that we can introduce other interventions.
Now, we shouldn’t be convinced that we can fine tune the planet. There will always be unintended consequences. However, we should be confident that if things are clearly and obviously much worse for humanity as the world gets hotter we can do something about it. We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good enough.
Lastly, and this will persuade few people but it is important, 100 years is a long time in the industrial age. However, it is simply forever in the information age. There is an extremely high chance that the very nature of human society itself will have changed by that time in ways that render this entire issue moot.
It would be tragic if we sacrificed the wellbeing of poor people today for something that became almost meaningless 100 years from now. Yet, that is precisely what we may be doing.
Smith seems to believe that climate change is merely a long-term, distant threat that will turn on at some point. However, drastic ecosystem and weather changes are already happening, degrading the water, food, housing, transportation, and energy systems that underlie civilization around the world. That degradation will accelerate, and if the advice of the Karl Smiths of the world is heeded, humanity will fail to take the steps needed to survive this more dangerous world. The only thing likely to be correct about his prediction is that “the very nature of human society itself will have changed by that time in ways that render this entire issue moot,” since there probably wouldn’t be any human society left.
Maybe I’m being snookered, and Smith’s post is actually Swiftian satire, an immodest proposal of risking global war, the death and suffering of billions, collapse of civilization, and even possible extinction of our species, just to satisfy the short-term greed and wasteful profligacy of the richest few. If that’s the case, then well done.