Apr 10, 2012

The Climate Hawks Are the Economically Rational Ones

New York City, via Wikimedia
Here's a great story from Climate Central on the vulnerability of New York's transport system to climate change: 
This was also supported by Climate Central’s own scientific research published in March, which showed that during the next several decades, the frequency of damaging storm surges in places like New York will rise significantly as sea levels creep up. The research projected a sea level rise of 13 inches in New York by 2050, and found that global warming-related sea level rise more than triples the odds of a 100-year flood or worse by 2030. 
Without global warming, the odds of such a flood would be just 8 percent by 2030, but with global warming the odds rise to 26 percent. [...] 
Even without sea level rise, a 100-year flood would inundate large portions of the subway system, Jacob’s team concluded. But with a 4-foot rise in sea level, storm-related flooding would inundate much of Manhattan’s subways, including almost all of the tunnels crossing into the Bronx beneath the Harlem River and the tunnels under the East River. Five of the city’s subway lines have extremely low points of entry to tunnels, subways, or ventilation shafts: they are less than 8 feet above sea level.
Obviously, given the geographical position of New York seen above, this is no surprise, but read the rest anyway for some extremely troubling analysis.

To step back a bit, though, this is just yet more confirmation of the argument that the climate hawk position (meaning that vigorous action is needed to confront climate change) is the obviously correct position for the soulless, technocratic economist. Climate change is presented by conservatives (when they're not denying it altogether) as a kind of luxury good, something that we can indulge during the good times, but something we "can't afford" now, when we should focus on fixing the economy and creating jobs.

Now, this might be somewhat true when it comes to a few things, like national parks preserved only for their aesthetic merit, but when it comes to climate this is a crock. Properly understood delaying action on climate change is stealing from others and the future. It's happening right now, to a smaller extent. Carbon emitters profit by their activities, but the costs of their pollution are imposed on others. New York is already spending $1.5 billion to upgrade its climate defenses, and likely as not they'll have to spend tens of billions more. That money has been stolen. (Or, to use bloodless economist jargon, it's a "negative externality.") Even Hayek supported government action in this kind of situation. This used to be obvious when we talked about Soviet ecological disasters, like their pillaging of the Aral Sea. It maybe netted them some money in the short term, but eventually destroyed a big fishing industry and badly poisoned the surrounding population.

Delaying climate confrontation because "we can't afford it" is like not fixing a crumbling roof support beam in your house because you don't want to spend the money. You can either fix the beam now, or pay an enormously greater sum later when your house collapses. (Of course, we conservatives say "we can't afford it" they mean "we must have budget headroom to cut taxes on the rich.")

I should clarify that I'm very much in favor of additional arguments for climate hawking (hawkery?), like for example that billions of people will die if we don't do something. Furthermore, I'm not at all convinced that strong action on climate will even cost that much. I'm just pointing out that even on the most hardcore of free-market principles (Friedrich von Hayek, fer chrissakes!) the case for climate hawking is ironclad.

3 comments:

  1. "I'm just pointing out that even on the most hardcore of free-market principles (Friedrich von Hayek, fer chrissakes!) the case for climate hawking is ironclad."

    Only true if you believe in the value of rational thought processes.

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  2. "I'm just pointing out that even on the most hardcore of free-market principles (Friedrich von Hayek, fer chrissakes!) the case for climate hawking is ironclad."

    Only true if you believe in the value of rational thought processes.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well, I suppose. But I can't go in for a will-to-power struggle. Not my forte.

    ReplyDelete