Climate Change and Supposed Benefits

“It’s pretty damn obvious there are positive impacts of climate change,” Reuters reports Professor Richard Tol saying on his way to disassociating himself from the Fifth Assessment Report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that he helped to author. The report is the international, comprehensive assessment of the state of human caused climate change and its impacts, which was released last week. The report, in summary, says that the rate at which the climate is changing will be very, very bad for life on Earth.

Tol doesn’t think so, but Tol is an economist, not a scientist. His expression of risk is reflective of the flaws in economic thinking. He appears to conceive of climate risks as linear and additive, basing his climatic unconcern on the outcome of a cost-benefit style of economic analysis where you count up the pros and cons and then consider if you have broken even, are ahead, or are in the red.

He points out that in the much-discounted positive side of the climate change equation, some regions will be able to grow new crops. Potatoes in the tundra! Booyah! So why all the frowny faces about impending disaster? “They will adapt.” Tol is quoted as saying, “Farmers aren’t stupid.”

No, they are not. But unfortunately for Tol’s argument, neither is climate risk linear and additive. It tends towards discontinuous and geometric. If you happen to be a farmer in India who can no longer produce food for lack of water, no amount of non-stupidity will help you think up a way to make rain. If you happen to be a farmer in Africa, you might find weather conditions forcing you to switch from farming agriculture and raising livestock to raising livestock alone. Which would be fine until you discovered you had nowhere to feed your livestock but a wider and wider range of degraded land, creating further erosion and irrigation problems for your already-stressed environment.

Of course the picture is complicated. Some crops will thrive where they didn’t before. But the known unknowns should keep us from running out and celebrating just yet. Pests will also thrive where they didn’t before. The mere existence of a substitute for a failed crop doesn’t imply that even the clever farmer will have access to the seed, or the experience to grow it, or insight into how to keep it growing in the rapidly changing and more erratic weather patterns that we are to expect with sudden climate change. These transitions take time and money and room for trial and error. The regions where much of the harm will occur do not have the money or the margin to endure these changes.

Tol’s argument in some ways echoes that of the nouveaux climate change denialists who say, “But it was warm when the dinosaurs walked the earth, and there was still life, plenty of life!” Not human life though. All the changes in past temperature took place over the course of geological time—slow enough for adaptation to occur in the biological sense of the word. Except in the case of the dinosaurs, that is, when the climate did indeed change quite quickly. Man-made climate change is happening in time frames sensible to, well, man.

This means that we are placing ourselves in conditions to which life—in both the biological and cultural sense—has never before had to adapt. We know plenty well enough to know that, given the fragility and interdependence of our existence in nature, such changes run high risks of causing catastrophe.

Tol is an economist not a scientist, but even economists ought to know better by now than to make these mistakes. After all, the catastrophic failure of economists to predict the 2008 financial crisis was in no small part a result of overreliance on models that underestimated the impact of interconnectedness and coordinated failures.

Of course farmers aren’t stupid, but Professor Tol is dead wrong to be so glib.

Photo Credit: Climate Risks/shutterstock