Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Moral of Sandy

COPENHAGEN – When “superstorm” Sandy hit the east coast of the United States on October 29, it not only flooded the New York City Subway and became the most important factor for 15% of US voters in the presidential election a week later. It also resurrected the unwarranted claim that global warming was to blame for such events, together with the morally irresponsible argument that we should help future hurricane victims by cutting CO2 emissions.

From Bill Clinton to Robert Redford, countless pundits blamed Sandy on climate change. Most spectacularly, the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek placed the monumental caption “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID” over a picture of flooded Manhattan.

Now, global warming is real, and cutting CO2 is a good idea when the reduction cost is lower than that of the damage it prevents. There is also a grain of truth in the connection between hurricanes and global warming: the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expects stronger but fewer hurricanes toward the end of this century.

But the end of the century is 88 years from now, and blaming global warming now is simply unconvincing (Bloomberg’s first source for its claim was a 134-character tweet). In its 2012 report on extreme weather, the IPCC said that it puts little trust in any attribution of hurricanes to global warming.

The authors of one of the central Science papers for the UN’s hurricane estimates put it clearly: “It is premature to conclude that human activities … have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane activity.” We will be unable to detect an impact “until we near the end of the century.”

In fact, the US has not seen a hurricane of Category 3 or higher since Wilma in 2005. Those seven years without strong hurricanes is the longest such span in more than a century. (Sandy, which was downgraded from a hurricane before it hit New York, was rebranded in the media as a “superstorm.”)

While Bloomberg claims that Sandy is the costliest storm in US history, and holds implications for “the survival of the human race,” this is simply wrong, as any recollection of the costs of Hurricane Katrina would show. Indeed, when adjusted for inflation and growth of coastal communities, Sandy ranks only 17th for US storms, and both the number and power of hurricanes that make landfall in the US have been declining slightly since 1900, not increasing.

Similarly, in global terms, the energy in hurricanes during the last four years (including Sandy) has been lower than at any point since the 1970’s. And, though hurricanes will be perhaps 2-11% stronger by the end of the century, they will also be less frequent, while societies will be more robust, with total global damage costs set to decline from 0.04% to 0.02% of world GDP over this period.

But the real damage from the claims about Sandy and climate change stems from what often follows: the insidious argument that if global warming caused this destruction, we should help future victims of hurricanes by cutting CO2 emissions now. As Redford put it, we need to “reduce the carbon pollution that's fueling these storms.” Like so many others, he deplores doubters: “By ignoring the scientific facts, they dishonor the human suffering brought on by climate change.”

But, unfortunately, it is by focusing on cutting CO2 that we really dishonor human suffering, because any realistic carbon cuts will do virtually nothing for the next 50-100 years.

Consider sea-level rise, which caused by far the most damage in New York. Models show that the world’s most ambitious climate policy, the EU’s “20-20-20” plan, will have a net cost of roughly $250 billion a year for the rest of the century, or about $20 trillion in total. Yet it will reduce sea-level rise by just nine millimeters by 2100. If the US embarked on a similar plan, the cost and the benefit would probably be on a similar scale: a two-centimeter reduction in sea-level rise by the end of the century at a net cost of about $500 billion annually.

Consider this extremely unrealistic scenario: even if we almost immediately could get the entire world – including China and India – on board for drastic carbon cuts, and even if we would suck CO2 out of the atmosphere toward the end of the century, we could reduce sea level rise by only 18-45 centimeters by the end of the century. Models show that the cost, by then, would be at least $40 trillion annually.

Contrast this to what New York City is rightly concerned about: the 3.3% chance each year (entirely without global warming) that a Category 3 hurricane will hit New York. This would cause sea surges of up to 7.5 meters (about three meters higher than Sandy), putting Kennedy Airport under six meters of water. Much of the risk could be managed by erecting seawalls, building storm doors for the Subway, and simple fixes like porous pavements – all at a cost of around $100 million a year.

Sandy underscored a fundamental question for all parts of the world that are affected by hurricanes. If we want to reduce hurricane damage, should we focus primarily on a very cheap solution that would enable us to handle storm surges much better within a few years, or on an incredibly expensive solution that would require almost a hundred years to avoid nine millimeters of 7.5-meter surges?

The morally defensible answer is clear, and it has nothing to do with immediate reductions in CO2 emissions.

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (16)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. CommentedLarry Meyn


      Dear Future Generations,

      It's too expensive and inconvenient to reduce our CO2 emissions, especially since we wouldn't see any benefits in our lifetimes. Sorry, it will be your problem to solve.

      Bjørn Lomborg

        Commentedjim bridgeman

        Dear Africans and Rural Asians and Latin Americans of Today,

        We care too much about future generations to worry about the hits to near-term world GDP growth that will in a leveraged way explode your misery, sickness and death rates today if we go on a precipitous carbon reduction regime. Even though those future generations will have enormously greater resources to handle the effects of climate change than you have today to support your basic living needs. (Compound a few percent annual growth in GDP for a hundred years or two to get a ballpark on much more resources our descendents will have at their disposal than do we.)

        The relevant concept is trade-off. Where is a reasonable balance point between today's invisible poor and the future's beneficiaries of today's growth? The most comprehensive attempt to analyze these trade-offs was the 2006 Stern Review. The only way its authors could force it to justify a precipitous carbon reduction regime today was to make economic assumptions to bizarre that even the IPCC had no stomach to adopt it.

        For example, implicit in Stern's assumptions was the use of negative interest rates to discount future harms back to apples to apples today (making them appear more harmful today than they will actually be in the future) for many years in a significant proportion of their stochastic scenarios. For another example, Stern's assumption was that a 10% reduction in the income of a $2 per day rural African today is the moral equivalent of a 10% reduction in the income of a well-off middle class family of 100 years from now (who will be living like upper income families do today.)

        Adjusting the Stern Review parameters back into the range of generally accepted economic practice is easily seen to limit the trade-off of current poverty population suffering versus future generation climate harms to be one that cannot justify any actions today that will impair GDP by more than a fraction of a percent per year.

    2. Commentedjimmy rousseau

      Mr. Lomborg has long ago lost any credibility on this subject, having sided with all sorts of crazy agw deniers in the past, only changing his tactics as the idiocy of his positions become apparent. First there was no such thing as warming or climate change, then the change was a natural cycle and not the result of human interference, finally we may be responsible for some warming but not much and it would cost so much as to send civilisation back to the dark ages. I am sure that if one were to do some checking on the statistics he spouts to banalise the problem one would probably end up on an internet site run by deniers of the same ilk. I have had enough of these people and their tactics which have already ensured that any actions we take are already very late and further inaction puts the future climate change into the very dangerous range.
      I sincerely believe that thirty years from now this kind of argument will be seen as having been one of the greater crimes against humanity.

    3. Commentedjim bridgeman

      Please keep trying to wake people up to large facts of the dilemma. The scientific fact is that carbon dioxide is an inevitable side effect of human activity (try to walk across the room without generating any ... try to think about walking across the room without generating any). The only ways to reduce carbon dioxide are (1) reduce the number of humans (2) reduce the level of activity per human and/or (3) increase the efficiency of human activity. (1) and (2) cannot be achieved quickly in any politically feasible or morally acceptable way. (3) cannot be achieved quickly in any technologically feasible way. While we slowly work on (3) (and while some slowly wait for (1) and (2) to occur slowly by individual choices) the only responsible policy is to prepare to deal with the consequences of carbon dioxide. It is much less unthinkable to do that in effective ways than it is unthinkable to achieve a drastic reduction in the number of humans or the level of their activity in a short period of time.

    4. CommentedThomas Haynie

      While I understand that changes in scientific thinking take time and that scientists are prone to be human and have the “club punch”. It is difficult to sympathize with modern climate deniers. The evidence in favor of hum caused climate change would appear to be pretty strong and supported by highly respected members of the scientific community. Meanwhile the movement of the climate deniers would seem to have a shred of that credibility. In fact according to a recent front line episode “Climate of Doubt” the kind charlatans over at CATO who would prefer to let “free markets determine what the science is” were key members of the inception of the movement.

      The author uses strong and I would say irresponsible terminology to lead his readers around to his way of thinking. “Morally irresponsible argument”…

      Even if there were little evidence of human induced climate change we still live on the planet and if climate change threatens us then why not act?
      As far as cost benefit analysis goes the math can get creative there, but if you consider an increase in economic damage and loss of life from fore severe and more frequent storms such as Sandy then the benefits seem pretty obvious. There are many workable options. I favor a cap and trade type structure. Unless my textbooks in Environmental Economics were all full of it there is history of success for this sort of framework in this country.

      As to immediate effects this is true that the effects won’t be seen for some time but that does not mean it should not be done. Obviously a combination of long and short term solutions will need to come into play.

        Commentedjames durante

        There was success for cap and trade regarding acid rain (sulfur dioxide). But that was specific to an industry and precise regarding caps and credits. CO2 is an entirely different ball game with a bad track record. In Europe, industries exaggerated their pollution levels so that the credits came easily and then, predictably, lost all value.

        California is set to embark on a similar path and what counts as credits varies from saving forests to planting certain crops to weatherproofing homes. It's nuts.

        A carbon tax which grows more steep over time is a better policy tool.

        But really what we should be looking at is a wholesale change in mindset from capitalist consumption to a subsistence economy. Imagine every human with a set of assured basics--good wholeseom food, basic clothing, a secure shelter, some basic amenities like solar energy, a working computer, a bike. Then there would be no desperate humans forced to sell their labor to private owners of the factories. Anything beyond the basics could be handled by a capiltiast economy, but owners would lack the typical leverage of desperation over workers.

        With the reduction in demand (no more needless gadgets, cabbage patch dolls or tween super couples) forests, rivers, grasslands and estuaries could be restored. More time for family, community and ceremonies, less for tv advertising and the shopping mall.

    5. CommentedAkib Khan

      The cost-benefit calculation that the author has resorted to has often been deemed too harsh in the public domain. But this is the type of exercise we should embrace in answering such questions. As long as the scientific investigations are confident enough to reject any causal relationship between climate change and such 'super-storm's, we should be very aware of popular suggestions such as a drastic reduction in CO2 emission or the likes. But even if there exists a relationship, the costs and benefits of potential actions must be carefully identified and compared. We all, in our very daily lives, have 'damaged' the environment in some way or other, but given the substantially high benefits compared to the meager costs involved, they have not often been labeled inappropriate. Nothing changes, in principle, when we do this type of calculation on a more macro level. We have to take into account the relative cheapness of 'curative' and 'preventive' actions. If the propensity of natural calamities is more/less exogenous, then that must also be paid heed. It is always hard to think through the consequences but it must be done to advance inter-temporal social welfare.

        Commentedjames durante

        First, who is the "we" to whom you refer? Humans' damage to the environment varies tremendously from the few remaining primitive peoples (almost no "damage") to "us" in the first world (collectively, colossal damage). Yes, colossal, not "meager." Consider that industrialization has spawned the sixth great extinction crisis in earth's history.

        I is the failure to come to grips with the severity of ecological harm that is alarming (aside from the harm itself). More facile attempts at pricing costs and effects will only perpetuate a system whose vast destructive effects run on auto-pilot.

        Rather, a new paradigm that considers a basic, good material life with abundant leisure time and a revitalized bio-sphere is needed. Yes, that will not be capitalistic. It will involve major declines in the typical capitalistic manner of assessing "wealth." But it will involve a new pact between all humans and between humans and our living relatives on this home we call earth.

    6. CommentedJake Burgess

      You present a very localised view on a global problem. The world woudn't be spending 20 Trillion to just keep JFK open (laudable objective that it is). What about the hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh, Kiribati, the Maldives etc etc whos livlihoods are in jeopardy? They contributed almost nothing to the acceleration of the warming, and similarly got no benefit from it either. Yet they disproportionately bear the cost. Are you going to be the one to go to these people saying "Slow Global Warming? Sorry, but the maths says you're just not worth it"

    7. Commentedjames durante

      Is there a distinction between Lomborg's allegations of knee jerk global warming claims and his own knee-jerk defense of "skeptical environmentalism?" All the serious, scientific analysts I read did not say global warming CAUSED the storm (Lomborg's straw man) but that it contributed to it. Ocean levels are at least 8 inches higher near Manhattan, the Atlantic is warmer which strengthened Sandy, the unusual pressure system attracting Sandy toward land was related to Arctic ice melt, and so on.

      It was a superstorm not because the media said so but because it marked a combination of the hurricane with on shore northern and western storm fronts.

      Lomborg's numbers are unfounded. Sea level rise is projected to be much greater under a business as usual scenario. And saying that cutting carbon has such dramatic costs does not take into account how other energy options--especially roof top solar--could ADD substantially to the economy as consumers have additional disposable income (money not sent to Lomborg's very dear friends in the utilities and King Cong--Coal, Oil, Natural Gas).

      Most questionable is his blanket claim that "societies will be more robust" in the future. Well, assuming that projections of the disruption of grain growing regions don't hold and that more intense weather events do not come to pass, and that projected declining water resources does not occur, then maybe he is right.

    8. CommentedJohn Kelley

      Bjorn Lomberg, nothing else can be said about a guy who used to deny global warming and now says its happening, we're causing it but don't worry be happy.

        CommentedAndrew George

        I find it amazing that people that decry critcs of the alarmists as people who misrepresent science and do so by misreprenting what the critics say. Exactly when did Lomborg "deny global warming was happening"? Here is a link to an Economist article over 11 years ago where he affirms that man-made global warming is happning but that it would be far more cost-effective (as in many orders of magnitude more cost effective) to battle other global scourges than AGW. It makes good reading as it's just as relevent today. It strikes me that he has been remarkably consistent and worth listening to.

    9. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      In any case very stpid not to prepare for such an incident given that it's likely in a 80yrs time scale. In Holland they build dykes for centuries. NYC does not and their power lines are not below the surface as everywhere.

    10. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree with the writer that making instinctive reflex reactions, many times motivated by personal or political agendas, focusing on the details instead of the big picture is more harmful than helpful.
      What such events as the recent hurricane should do to us is to initiate self examination.
      At least to examine how much general human activity might be against nature's laws, how much we are in balance with the vast ecosystem around us.
      And here comes the real issue.
      Most of humans do not think about nature around us as obligatory. Somehow we managed to convince ourselves that we are outside of this system, that humans are independent and can do whatever they want. We devise our own laws, principles, we build systems that are disconnected from nature and expect them to work and prosper.
      At the same time if we examine our whole history, all our inventions, innovations, all we did was copying nature, using its templates, materials to shape them into different forms for our own use.
      The human body, the human psyche is operating based on the same natural laws and principles anything else operates on in the interconnected system.
      Humans are part of the system, we are simply unable to exist outside of it, ignoring its conditions.
      Despite all this, which should be clearly understood even based on all the modern classical sciences, humanity is still pursuing a totally unnatural and more and more clearly unsustainable socio-economic system.
      While all the living species among themselves and between species comprise a complementing, self-sustaining chain, humans even within human society are each other's predators, we can only find happiness on top of someone else's misery, if it is cannot be good for me at least the others also should suffer, during our history and even today we wipe out whole nations, cultures either physically or ideologically.
      On top of this the whole human system is based on a cancer like behavior, exploiting as much as possible from each other and from the environment, following the present constant quantitative growth economic model based on absolutely unnecessary and harmful overproduction and overconsumption.
      What we ignore here is that the vast natural ecosystem around us is not "mindless" it has its laws and principles exactly in order to maintain balance, homeostasis, to maintain life and development. And humanity is a foreign body in this huge, otherwise harmonious system.
      And it is not even like "nature taking revenge", but simply by ignoring the laws around we ourselves commit suicide as a person jumping off from a tall building ignoring the force of gravity.
      It is completely irrelevant what people think about climate change or global warming, if we do not learn the natural laws and principles sustaining the whole Universe we simply destroy ourselves, and it is much closer than people think, as the deepening global crisis shows we do not need nature to finish us off, the collapsing economical and financial system will bury us much sooner.
      At the moment we want to know nature to exploit it for our own selfish use. Instead we need to know nature's laws in order to adapt to it, immerse ourselves into it in harmony, to become conscious partners with it.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer


        Once again, a brilliant comment -- but this one strikes most special. I find the analogy with cancer particularly intriguing -- frightening if you will -- because of what has been discovered in recent years about cancers in their final stages.

        Basically these perverse cells have organized themselves into complex entity -- as it were, another creature that has succeeded from the body's union and has become its deadly enemy -- to its own doom as well.

        Yet I wonder if out of all the chemo and radiative therapies, if sopmehow we couldn't go beyond to -- in some sense -- reason with this cancerous entity, to reach some level of mutual concern, and rejoin with the body for the common good.

        Crazy thought perhaps. But let me just say this. Lets see if we can't bring the matter about at the level of that cancer you describe in the body Humanity.

        And if we can accomplish this, I wonder if Providence, the Natural Order, what have you, won't respond in working out these other relationships for us, from internal diseases to external climatic catastrophes.

        From the quantum, to the biochemical,to the complexities of our human communication on so many levels. Who knows the totalities of these connections and where they could lead in harmony?

        Homeostasis -- yes indeed, what other lesson could a chaotic imbalance like Sandy come to teach us? And may we graduate swiftly from this school of hard knock before the next class begins...