Cars, Bombs, and Climate Change

Why are we willing to calculate costs and benefits when it comes to addressing traffic safety and terrorism, but not when devising policies to deal with climate change? A constructive dialogue about the smartest policy responses to global warming requires replacing our fixation on far-fetched, Armageddon scenarios with realism about the true costs of confronting this challenge.

COPENHAGEN – For the better part of a decade, I have upset many climate activists by pointing out that there are far better ways to stop global warming than trying to persuade governments to force or bribe their citizens into slashing their reliance on fuels that emit carbon dioxide. What especially bugs my critics is the idea that cutting carbon is a cure that is worse than the disease – or, to put it in economic terms, that it would cost far more than the problem it is meant to solve. “How can that possibly be true?” they ask. “After all, we are talking about the end of the world. What could be worse – or more costly – than that?”

They have a point. If we actually face, as Al Gore recently put it, “an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventative measures to protect human civilization as we know it,” then no price would be too high to pay to stop global warming in its tracks. But are the stakes really that high?

The answer is no. Even the worst-case scenarios proposed by mainstream climate scientists – scenarios that go far beyond what the consensus climate models predict – are not as bad as Gore would have us believe. For example, a sea-level rise of five meters – more than eight times what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects, and more than twice what is probably physically possible – would not deluge all or even most of mankind.

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