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The Relative Unimportance of Global Warming

Global warming has become the preeminent concern of our time. Many governments and most campaigners meeting in Montreal now throughDecember 9tell us that dealing with global warming should be our first priority. Negotiating a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, they argue, requires that we seek even deeper cuts in the pollution that causes global warming.

But they are wrong about our priorities, and they are advocating an inefficient remedy. As a result, we risk losing sight of tackling the world’s most important problems first, as well as missing the best long-term approach to global warming.

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To be sure, global warming is real, and it is caused by CO2. The trouble is that today’s best climate models show that immediate action will do little good. The Kyoto Protocol will cut CO2 emissions from industrialized countries by 30% below what it would have been in 2010 and by 50% in 2050. Yet, even if everyone (including the United States) lived up to the protocol’s rules, and stuck to it throughout the century, the change would be almost immeasurable, postponing warming for just six years in 2100.

Likewise, the economic models tell us that the cost would be substantial ­– at least $150 billion a year. In comparison, the United Nations estimates that half that amount could permanently solve all of the world’s major problems: it could ensure clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education for every single person in the world, now.

Global warming will mainly harm developing countries, because they are poorer and therefore more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, even the most pessimistic forecasts from the UN project that by 2100 the average person in developing countries will be richer than the average person in developed countries is now.

So early action on global warming is basically a costly way of doing very little for much richer people far in the future. We need to ask ourselves if this should, in fact, be our first priority.

Of course, in the best of all worlds, we would not need to prioritize. We could do all good things. We would have enough resources to win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water, broaden educational access, and halt climate change. But we don’t. So we have to ask the hard question: if we can’t do it all, what should we do first?

Some of the world’s top economists – including four Nobel laureates – answered this question at the Copenhagen Consensus in 2004, listing all major policies for improving the world according to priority. They found that dealing with HIV/AIDS, hunger, free trade, and malaria were the world’s top priorities. This was where we could do the most good for our money.

On the other hand, the experts rated immediate responses to climate change at the bottom of the world’s priorities. Indeed, the panel called these ventures – including the Kyoto Protocol – “bad projects,” simply because they cost more than the good that they do.

The Copenhagen Consensus gives us great hope because it shows us that there are so many good things that we can do. For $27 billion, we could prevent 28 million people from getting HIV. For $12 billion we could cut malaria cases by more than a billion a year. Instead of helping richer people inefficiently far into the future, we can do immense good right now.

This does not mean losing sight of the need to tackle climate change. But the Kyoto approach focuses on early cuts, which are expensive and do little good. Instead, we should be concentrating on investments in making energy without CO2 emissions viable for our descendants. This would be much cheaper and ultimately much more effective in dealing with global warming. The US and Britain have begun to tout this message.

The parties in Montreal should rule out more Kyoto-style immediate cuts, which would be prohibitively expensive, do little good, and cause many nations to abandon the entire process. Rather, they should suggest a treaty binding every nation to spend, say, 0.1% of GDP on research and development of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies.

This approach would be five times cheaper than Kyoto and many more times cheaper than a Kyoto II. It would involve all nations, with richer nations naturally paying the larger share, and perhaps developing nations being phased in. It would let each country focus on its own future vision of energy needs, whether that means concentrating on renewable sources, nuclear energy, fusion, carbon storage, or searching for new and more exotic opportunities.

Such a massive global research effort would also have potentially huge innovation spin-offs. In the long run, such actions are likely to make a much greater impact on global warming than Kyoto-style responses.

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In a world with limited resources, where we struggle to solve just some of the challenges that we face, caring more about some issues means caring less about others. We have a moral obligation to do the most good that we possibly can with what we spend, so we must focus our resources where we can accomplish the most first.

By this standard, global warming doesn’t come close. Rather than investing hundreds of billions of dollars in short-term, ineffective cuts in CO2 emissions, we should be investing tens of billions in research, leaving our children and grandchildren with cheaper and cleaner energy.