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Category — Adaptation

Fighting AGW Religion in North Carolina (sea-level-rise debate gets political)

What’s been happening recently in North Carolina (NC) is a microcosm of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) story: politics versus science, ad-hominems versus journalism, evangelists versus pragmatists, etc.

The contentiousness is over one of the main AGW battlefields: sea-level rise (SLR). North Carolina happens to have a large amount of coastline and has become the U.S. epicenter for this issue.

Background

The brief version is that this began several years ago when a state agency, the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), selected a 20± member “science panel” to do a scientific assessment of the NC SLR situation through 2100. This could have been a very useful project if there had been balance in the personnel selections, and the panel’s assessment adhered to scientific standards. Regrettably, neither happened and the project soon jumped the rails, landing in the political agenda ditch.

In their 2010 report, the panel concluded that NC should expect a 39-inch SLR by 2100. Their case was built around a 2007 paper by Stefan Rahmstorf, and was not encumbered by a single reference to a perspective different from Rahmstorf’s. Shortly after the report was released, state agencies started making the rounds of North Carolina coastal communities, putting them on notice that they would need to make BIG changes (elevating roads and bridges, re-zoning property, changing flood maps for insurance purposes, etc.).

My Involvement

As an independent scientist, I was solicited by my coastal county to provide a scientific perspective on this report. Even though I wasn’t a SLR expert, I could clearly see that this document was a classic case of Confirmation Bias, as it violated several scientific standards. But to get into the technical specifics I solicited the inputs of about 40 international SLR experts (oceanographers, etc.). [Read more →]

June 12, 2012   12 Comments

Earth Day 2012: Top 10 Positive Climate Developments

The scientific findings of the human influence on the climate system have been, and perhaps will always be, a mixed bag. Assuming strong positive feedback effects, and thus a high climate sensitivity, it certainly can be argued that the bad outweighs the good. But if feedback effects are more neutral, the sign of the externality flips from negative to positive given that, on net, a moderately warmer, wetter, and CO2-fertilized world is quite arguably a better one.

Earth Day 2012 yesterday brought forth predictable cries of doom-and-gloom. But there are plenty of positives on closer inspection on the climate front, developments which have undoubtedly spilled over into making the earth a better place for humanity at large.

Here is my Top 10 list of positive climate developments based on the recent empirical data and the latest scientific literature:

10) The growing season across the Northern Hemisphere is expanding; [Read more →]

April 23, 2012   45 Comments

How Capitalism Makes Catastrophes Non-Catastrophic (Key data point for energy/climate debate)

One of the greatest and most unheralded successes of industrial capitalism is making our climate eminently livable.

The mass-production of sturdy, weather-proof buildings … the universal availability of heating and air conditioning … the ability to flee the most vicious storms through modern transportation … the protection from drought through modern irrigation … the protection from disease through modern sanitation–all of these have led to a 99 percent reduction in the number of climate-related deaths over the last century.

Given how obsessed America is about climate change (or some intellectuals/politicians want us to be), these facts should be well-known and incorporated into every discussion of industrial policy. Those who claim to care about a livable climate for the future should strive to understand the mechanisms by which industrial capitalism has already created the most livable climate in history.

If they did so, they would learn from such thinkers as Ayn Rand and Ludwig Von Mises how capitalism, by permitting only voluntary associations among men, unleashes the individual human mind–and that millions of such minds, free to associate and trade however they choose, will engage in stupendously intricate, collaborative planning for everything from how to make sure they can always get groceries to how to account for nearly any conceivable weather contingency.

Armed with an understanding of individual freedom and individual planning, the climate-concerned would suspect that any preventable problem in dealing with weather–such as widespread vulnerability to flooding–is caused by government interference in voluntary trade, such as taxpayer-financed flood insurance that encourages people to live in high-flooding areas.

Center for American Regress?

Unfortunately, an understanding of capitalism and climate is sorely lacking at the Center for America Progress, the hottest left-wing think-tank today. On its blog, ThinkProgress, the Center recently ran a piece by Christian Parenti entitled Climate Action Opponents Are Ensuring the Outcome They Claim to Oppose: Big Government. [Read more →]

February 10, 2012   16 Comments

Overplaying Heat, Underplaying Adaptation (Part II)

[Editor's note: This is Part II (Part I here) of a two-part analysis examining projections of increasing human mortality to accompany projections of increases in temperature resulting from greenhouse gas emissions produced from burning fossil fuels to produce energy. Such studies typically give short shrift to the effectiveness of rather simple adaptations and the power of cheap, and reliable electricity.]

In my post yesterday, I discussed the seemingly incongruent fact: the more frequent heat waves, the fewer the number of people who die from them. This results from adaptive measures that the people who live in hot places incorporate into their lifestyles. These adaptations include access to air-conditioning which is facilitated by the availability of cheap, reliable, and abundant electricity.

Today, I’ll look more in detail at a new paper which projects a rapid rise in human mortality across Europe to accompany projections of rising temperatures there—contrary to observations.

Promulgating the Myth

Underplaying our adaptive power and our innate desire not to want to die is essential in order to support such a finding, and this way of thinking (along with some misapplied statistics) is on display in the just-published paper by Joan Ballester and colleagues which appears in the new journal Nature Communications. And just in case this idea is not readily apparent in the actual article, the Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein—not one to let a good global-warming-is-going-to-be-bad-for-you story pass by—played up the negative and played down the positives in his widely distributed coverage “Heat will kill more than cold in Europe, eventually.” The ‘independent’ expert on Seth’s go-to list on heat-related mortality, Jonathan Patz, is happy to oblige Seth’s want of confirmation of the study’s conclusions that rising temperatures are going lead to rising temperature-related mortality and goes on to add that this new study “is really an essential paper in the field of climate change and health.”

Had Seth interviewed me, he would have gotten a completely different take. [Read more →]

July 12, 2011   5 Comments

Overplaying Heat, Underplaying Adaptation (Part I)

[Editor's Note: This is Part I of a two-part analysis examining projections of increasing human mortality to accompany projections of increases in temperature resulting from greenhouse gas emissions produced from burning fossil fuels to produce energy. Such studies typically give short shrift to the effectiveness of rather simple adaptations and the power of cheap, and reliable electricity.]

Increased use of air-conditioning, made possible by access to affordable, reliable electricity, goes a long way towards counteracting the acute effects of excessive heat events, a.k.a. heat waves, on human mortality and morbidity. Projections of rapidly rising human heat-related mortality under a warming climate, such as those made in a recent paper published by Joan Ballester and colleagues, fail to acknowledge the power and reality that this and other (even simpler) adaptations can have at protecting human life.

When it comes to energy and climate policy, one cannot make an ‘other things equal’ assumption. More climate policy means less energy, period.

As an increasing frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves is anticipated as the climate warms from the combination of a build-up of atmospheric greenhouse gases and growing urban and suburban environments, expanding the availability of affordable, abundant, and dependable energy should be one of our highest high priorities. Instead, there is a deluge of proposals (in part fuelled by results like those of Ballester et al.) aimed at limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases produced from the combustion of fossil fuels—actions which threaten the quality and quantity of our energy supply, and thus run counter to the practices which best allow adaptation to climate and climate changes.

Thankfully, of the many proposals which have been, well, proposed, only one with any teeth has really stuck (thus far)—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now has the ability to regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases, an ability which was predicated by its finding that such emissions “threaten” our “health and welfare.”

From where I sit, our health and welfare is more under threat by regulations, laws, and/or treaties which (would) act to hold one hand behind our back as we try to best protect ourselves from the vagaries of climate (and to a far lesser degree, climate change). And the justifications for doing so ring hollow, as virtually all analyses of the impacts of such proposals show them to be ineffective at producing any meaningful mitigation to projected climate changes—that is, without the bulk of the work being done by developing countries such as China and India. Of course, developing countries realize that the positives from expanding the availability of affordable and reliable electricity, including the adaptive power that they afford us, outweigh the negatives from climate changes that any resultant greenhouse gas emissions may produce. Therefore, electricity from fossil fuels continues to lead the way into the future. [Read more →]

July 11, 2011   6 Comments

Vegetative Response to Climate Change: Celebrate, Don’t Fret

A new study has concluded that shifting climate is leading to shifting vegetation patterns across the globe.

My response to this announcement was “Terrific! The biosphere was responding the way it should to changing conditions.”

To my surprise, this enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the study’s authors. In fact, lead author Patrick Gonzalez seemed downright glum:

“Globally, vegetation shifts are disrupting ecosystems, reducing habitat for endangered species, and altering the forests that supply water and other services to many people.”

A very negative spin on what should be cause for celebration.

Despite how much we, humans, have sliced and diced the landscape, natural systems are still doing their best to respond to climate changes—just like they always have.

The only way to see this in a negative light would to hold the belief that everything that humans do to the world is bad. This seems like an odd philosophy, for more than likely the holder of such a philosophy wouldn’t exist today had it not been for everything that humans have done to make the world a better place and vastly improve our health and welfare. Just 150 years ago, as the industrial revolution was set to take off, the population of the world was about 5 times less than now and the average human lifespan was about 30 years. 

I am not saying that there aren’t some negatives for some species when the climate changes. Of course there are. But what I am saying is that there are plenty of positives as well. And it takes no more imagination to come up with positives than it does for negatives. [Read more →]

June 21, 2010   5 Comments

Krugman Paints False Picture of Consensus Alarmism

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote a lengthy article, “Building a Green Economy,” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Krugman is an able writer.  He laid out the textbook arguments on climate change from the problem-and-act perspective, and his fact-of-the-matter tone and apparent expertise no doubt misled many readers.

Although he technically said nothing demonstrably false, Krugman gives the impression that there is widespread consensus that drastic action is needed to avert catastrophic climate change. This is simply not true, and all we have to do is actually read the consensus reports to see that Krugman is misleading his readers.

Krugman’s Summary of the Climate Science

After giving a good summary of the standard issues in the economics of climate change, Krugman pauses to comment on what the natural scientists (as opposed to the economists) have to say on the subject:

This is an article on climate economics, not climate science. But before we get to the economics, it’s worth establishing three things about the state of the scientific debate.

The first is that the planet is indeed warming. [I]f you look at the evidence the right way ­— taking averages over periods long enough to smooth out the fluctuations — the upward trend is unmistakable: each successive decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the one before.

Second, climate models predicted this well in advance, even getting the magnitude of the temperature rise roughly right. While it’s relatively easy to cook up an analysis that matches known data, it is much harder to create a model that accurately forecasts the future. So the fact that climate modelers more than 20 years ago successfully predicted the subsequent global warming gives them enormous credibility. [Krugman page 3, emphasis added.]

Now Krugman’s summary above is either accurate or not, depending on how much error we will tolerate in the predictions. But fair enough, we’ll agree with Krugman that climate models 20 years ago predicted higher average global temperatures, and that’s indeed what we’ve experienced. [Read more →]

April 16, 2010   5 Comments

Countering Sen. Kerry’s Catastrophic Climate Claims (Part 2)

Editor note: On November 10, 2009, Mr. Green testifedbefore the Senate Committee on Finance about global warming. During the course of his testimony, an obviously agitated Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) challenged Ken on different aspects of the climate debate. His responses are printed here. [Part I of this series ran yesterday.]

1. Peer-Reviewed Publishing Revisited

Kerry seemed to think it somehow damning that I do not choose to publish in the peer-reviewed climate literature. First—as I pointed out when I introduced myself—while I am an environmental scientist by training, I have chosen to work on policy analysis, which I believe is as important as, or more important than, the science.

However, I would challenge his very premise, which is that peer review is a meaningful indicator of trustworthiness. Plenty of research suggests that peer review is deeply flawed, biased in favor of both extreme and “positive” claims, resistant to nonconfirmation studies, and highly incestuous, because review committees regularly screen out divergent viewpoints and consist of peers who coauthor work with each other. While most research on problems with peer review involves medical literature, there is every reason to believe the same problems plague climate research.

As Drummond Rennie, M.D., deputy editor (West) of the Journal of the American Medical Association writes, “There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.” Peer review determines where rather than whether a paper should be published, Rennie says. However, from time to time, “shoddy science” ends up even in the most prestigious journals.

Examining peer review in the context of genetically modified food, Robert Horton, editor of the medical Journal Lancet has observed that “the mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability—not the validity—of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.”

For additional information on the limitations of peer review, I point you to the following papers: [Read more →]

December 24, 2009   4 Comments

Dear Superfreakonomics Critics: Time Is Money in the Climate Debate Too

One of the ugliest battles in the blogosphere climate wars has involved the newly released Superfreakonomics, sequel to the best-selling Freakonomics. In the new book’s final chapter (available here in pdf), economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner set out to challenge the view that massively restricting carbon emissions is the only hope for averting planetwide catastrophe.

In this post I will link to some of the major commentary on the book so far, and then focus on U.C. Berkeley economist Brad DeLong’s specific claims that Levitt and Dubner’s arguments in support of geoengineering are somehow “bad economics.” As we’ll see, Levitt and Dubner might be wrong, but if so they are wrong because of the numbers. DeLong is painting their views as self-evidently absurd, but that’s only because he himself is overlooking a basic economic point.

The Background

Not surprisingly, the climate scientists and economists who are most vocal about the need for drastic emissions cutbacks were furious when the book’s contents began circulating. Joe Romm got the ball rolling with this fiery post; his ally in such matters, Paul Krugman, soon followed suit. Dubner defended himself and co-author Levitt against Romm’s accusations of intentional distortion in this post, and one of the primary sources for the chapter, physicist (and all-around guru) Nathan Myhrvold, defended himself from Romm’s accusations of ignorance here.

In the present post, [Read more →]

October 29, 2009   1 Comment

Climate Change: The Resilience Option (far better than climate stasis)

Climate Change: The Resilience Option
Kenneth P. Green
What Is Better, Climate Resilience or Climate Stasis?
In general, the mainstream response to the issue of climate change has been reactive, pessimistic, authoritarian, and resistant to change. Those alarmed about a changing climate would stand athwart the stream of climate history and cry “stop, enough!” Rather than working to cease human influence on climate, they want to find a way to make the climate stand still. This focus on creating climate stasis has led to policy proposals that would have been laughed at or dismissed as wacky conspiracy theories in the 1980s. But mainstream anti-climate-change activists are proposing nothing less than the establishment of global weather control through energy rationing, regulations, and taxes, all managed by a global bureaucracy with a goal of leading humanity into a future that will become smaller, more costly, and less dynamic over time. Environmental groups, along with organizations like the United Nations IPCC, are calling for nothing less than imposing climate stasis on a chaotic system.
Consider the climate bill now before Congress: the Waxman-Markey American Climate and Energy Security Act. Waxman-Markey sets the ambitious target of reducing total U.S. GHG emissions by 83 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050 (with intermediate benchmarks at 2020 and 2030). Thus, the cap and the allowances sold pursuant to it will be lowered from a peak of 5.4 billion tons in 2016 to just a little over 1 billion tons in 2050. As my colleague Steven F. Hayward and I have pointed out elsewhere, these targets are absurd.   From Department of Energy (DOE) historical statistics on energy consumption, it is possible to estimate that the United States last emitted 1 billion tons in the year 1910, when the nation’s population was only 92 million people, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was only $6,196, and total GDP (also in 2008 dollars) was about $572 billion—about one-twenty-fifth the size of the U.S. economy today. By the year 2050, however, the United States is expected to have a population of 420 million, according to Census Bureau projections—more than four times the population of 1910. In order to reach the 83 percent reduction target, per-capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will have to be no more than 2.4 tons per person—only one-quarter the level of per-capita emissions in 1910.
When did the United States last experience per-capita CO2 emissions of only 2.4 tons? From the limited historical data available, it appears that this was about 1875. In 1875, the nation’s GDP (in 2008 dollars) was $147 billion, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was $3,300, and the population was only 45 million.
My colleague Kevin A. Hassett, Hayward and I have also written elsewhere about the problems with cap-and-trade and suggested that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be preferable,  but that, too, represents an effort to impose stasis on a dynamic system simply using more efficient means. A carbon tax is, to be sure, vastly superior to a cap-and-trade system, but there are doubts that it is politically possible to enact one in a way that is actually revenue-neutral and is not abused by politicians who will look to tax those they dislike and rebate the taxes to groups they favor, namely, those which are most inclined to vote for their party.
A more forward-looking, optimistic, and free-market approach to the risks of climate variability accepts that the climate has been, is, and will be variable; focuses on the risks of variability; and looks for ways to build resilience in the face of that change, regardless of cause.
Aaron Wildavsky’s Resilience Paradigm
Aaron Wildavsky, one of the great policy analysts of the late twentieth century, wrote extensively about the benefits of resilient social institutions. Wildavsky observed that possible risk-reduction interventions lie along a spectrum from resilient to interceptive. Resilient approaches maximize our ability to cope with risk by maintaining a dynamic, market-based, knowledge-building strategy. Interceptive interventions emphasize specific risk-reduction efforts that require certain specific actions and prohibit or restrict others.  But how do we decide, for a given risk such as climate change, whether an interceptive approach is more likely to provide greater safety than a resilient approach?
Employing both theory and empirical observation, Wildavsky observed that uncertainties about the likelihood or extent of any given risk and about the effectiveness of any intervention constrain risk-reduction decisions.  He clearly demonstrated that a strategy of risk-interception is likely to be successful only in situations of truly excellent information.
So, for example, for a power plant owner who knows that a particular part is going to burn out every 150 days an interception strategy of replacing the part every 149 days to prevent the risk is likely cost-effective. But where less information exists, more resilient strategies are likely to succeed, because interception will be either infeasible or expensive in such situations. If a power plant had 8,000 critical pieces of equipment that would create a fire upon failure but the plant owner did not know the failure rates of each piece, trying to intercept the risk by replacing pieces before they failed would be enormously costly. Further, trying to have backup systems on all 8,000 pieces would be technologically difficult and probably not financially feasible. Instead, a strategy of resilience, such as implementing a sophisticated fire-response system, is more likely to be a feasible and efficient way of dealing with this risk.
In the case of climate change, our knowledge of the nature and scope of risks and future conditions is low, and our knowledge about how to intervene to head off specific risks is small. This suggests that current policy approaches that focus on mitigating GHG emissions largely to the exclusion of everything else are simply a waste of attention and resources, and resilience should be considered the default climate strategy. And to a large extent, the resilience option is the complete opposite of the climate-stasis approach; it focuses on decentralization, deregulation, and freeing markets to maximize resilience.
Managing Risks with Resilience-building Policies
A vast range of risks has been discussed in the context of climate change, from flood to drought, threatened food supplies, more deadly insect-borne diseases; higher heat-related deaths; rising sea levels, and so forth. Several approaches economists and policy analysts have identified could help increase social resilience to such risks.
Eliminate risk subsidies. Predicted damages associated with sea levels and storms are high because of the popularity of such locales for high-density business and upscale residential development. As a result, damages from extreme coastal weather events have been hugely expensive. The damages from Hurricane Katrina, for example, reached over $150 billion.  The question, however, is why there was so much value that was so badly protected against completely predictable events? Levees and sea-walls were under-designed. Many houses and businesses were not insured against flood damage. As Charles Perrow observes in Our Next Catastrophe, “Even in areas known to be hazardous, only about 20 percent of homeowners purchase flood insurance, and less than 50 percent of businesses purchase flood and earthquake insurance in risky areas.”
The reason for much of that risk-taking is the role of state and federal governments as the insurer of last resort. People know that in the event of a disaster, even if uninsured, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will give grants to let people recover from natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and storm surges. Without such assurances, we can assume that many people would be unwilling to face the risk of living in coastal areas that could be flooded by rising sea levels, and would relocate to higher ground. Capital needed for businesses would also avoid areas of high-risk due to sea-level rise, preventing further siting of high-value structures in vulnerable areas. If risk subsidies cannot be abolished entirely, at the very least, they should charge risk-based premiums.
Privatize Infrastructure. Climate change could also pose a challenge for coastal or low-lying roadways, water-treatment facilities facing increased rainfall intensity, energy utilities facing increased summertime electricity demand, and so on. Governments are quite good at building infrastructure. After all, what politician does not enjoy a ribbon cutting ceremony for some new element of name-bearing infrastructure? But governments are dismal at maintaining infrastructure, as they generally fail to establish a revenue stream to maintain a system that provides feedback about whether a particular road should be raised or a water-treatment facility expanded or a power-capability increased. A solution to these problems, as well as a potential source of revenue for cash-strapped state and municipal governments is the privatization of infrastructure. While a few poorly executed privatization efforts have tarnished the name, the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater; privatization offers a host of benefits. A great deal of research on privatization in developing and developed countries demonstrates that, on the whole, privatization shows considerably more benefit than risk. One reason is that private owners of infrastructure have a lot of investment tied up in getting a long-run stream of revenue from the infrastructure. Ensuring that future changes in climate do not disrupt that long- run cash flow is critical to their current financial performance.
Roadways. If roads are privately owned and tolled, road operators have a revenue stream to tap in order to raise, resurface, or re-contour roadways to adapt to climate changes. If costs of such adaptation are high, tolls will rise, and at some point, an economic decision will occur about whether a road should be maintained, or whether some alternate route should be developed. In some cases people may indeed find their transportation options so limited that they must move away to a place with a less fragile climate. One can imagine something like this for some coastal roadways where there are no easy alternate routes, but it would probably be a fairly rare outcome. Still, if such situations did develop, this is a desirable outcome, as it is both economically efficient and reduces the likely cost of climate-related damages to structures.
Electricity Supply. As long as governments distort the prices consumers pay for energy with subsidies, fuel mandates, renewable power mandates and the like, electricity markets cannot effectively adapt to changing climatic conditions. If electricity markets were fully deregulated, and if full costs were passed onto consumers, price signals would be created for the electricity provider in terms of expanding or decreasing capacity and for the consumer in terms of the real cost of living in an environment subject to energy-consuming heat waves (or cold snaps). Privatization would create incentives for electricity conservation and for the acquisition of energy-efficient appliances and devices without any need for specific governmental efficiency standards. Further, electric companies would be driven to connect with one another to ensure reliability to their customers rather than doing the minimum possible to satisfy regulators.
Water Supply. Full pricing of water and full privatization of the water supply, drinking water plants, and wastewater treatment plants would ameliorate many climatic risks incrementally over time, including flooding, seawater intrusion, and coastal and river pollution from storm runoff. Charging the full price for water, from supply to disposal, would create a price signal for consumers regarding the real risks they face living in hydrologically sensitive areas and create incentives for conservation while producing a revenue stream to allow for expanded capability or the securing of alternative supplies. At some point, again, high prices could simply lead people to move away from areas that are hydrologically costly, such as cities dependent on a single winter snow pack that shrinks or a single major river that suffers reduced flow.
Flooding. What is not achieved by removing insurance subsidies in flood-prone areas can be managed through the creation of privately administered hydrologic utilities, which would be financed by flood-protection fees charged to residents of flood prone areas. Again, such a system creates a price signal that can show when it is and when it is not efficient to raise the height of a levee, for example, or to expand permeable surfacing requirements in development. The cost of paying for such activities would send the consumer a signal about the true cost of living in flood-prone areas, and would ultimately lead those who could not afford to fully finance their level of risk to relocate to safer areas.
Trust in Resilience, but Tie up Your Camel
In the event that climate change does tend toward higher estimates put forward by the United Nations and other groups, it is reasonable to consider insurance options that might help deal with such climate changes. Such options might include government investment in geoengineering research, investment in research and development to advance technologies allowing the removal of GHGs from the atmosphere, and possibly the creation of a climate adaptation fund to be used where state and local governments find themselves unable to cope with a given climate change, or even to compensate others should it ultimately be shown that U.S. emissions of GHGs have caused harm to other countries or the property of other individuals.
It has long been known that certain types of risk are not suited to attempted prevention, but instead must be met with the resilience needed to live with the risk. Climate change is one such risk that is, as the world is increasingly observing, virtually impossible to prevent, whether it is manmade or natural.
As efforts to mitigate GHGs fail around the world, it is long past time to broaden the tools available to us in order to make our society resilient to climate risk. Rather than remain largely focused on the quixotic effort to reduce GHG emissions or to stand athwart the stream of climate and shout “stop, enough!” we should shift the majority of our policymaking attention to an agenda of resilience building and adaptation, two areas  with which governments particularly struggle. Plan B for climate resilience should consist of an aggressive program of resilience building through the elimination of risk subsidies, and the privatization of infrastructure. Other subsidies and regulations that make the overall economy more brittle in the face of climate change would also be ripe targets for removal, such as those which permeate energy and water markets.
Climate Change: The Resilience Option
Kenneth P. Green
What Is Better, Climate Resilience or Climate Stasis?
In general, the mainstream response to the issue of climate change has been reactive, pessimistic, authoritarian, and resistant to change. Those alarmed about a changing climate would stand athwart the stream of climate history and cry “stop, enough!” Rather than working to cease human influence on climate, they want to find a way to make the climate stand still. This focus on creating climate stasis has led to policy proposals that would have been laughed at or dismissed as wacky conspiracy theories in the 1980s. But mainstream anti-climate-change activists are proposing nothing less than the establishment of global weather control through energy rationing, regulations, and taxes, all managed by a global bureaucracy with a goal of leading humanity into a future that will become smaller, more costly, and less dynamic over time. Environmental groups, along with organizations like the United Nations IPCC, are calling for nothing less than imposing climate stasis on a chaotic system.
Consider the climate bill now before Congress: the Waxman-Markey American Climate and Energy Security Act. Waxman-Markey sets the ambitious target of reducing total U.S. GHG emissions by 83 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050 (with intermediate benchmarks at 2020 and 2030). Thus, the cap and the allowances sold pursuant to it will be lowered from a peak of 5.4 billion tons in 2016 to just a little over 1 billion tons in 2050. As my colleague Steven F. Hayward and I have pointed out elsewhere, these targets are absurd.   From Department of Energy (DOE) historical statistics on energy consumption, it is possible to estimate that the United States last emitted 1 billion tons in the year 1910, when the nation’s population was only 92 million people, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was only $6,196, and total GDP (also in 2008 dollars) was about $572 billion—about one-twenty-fifth the size of the U.S. economy today. By the year 2050, however, the United States is expected to have a population of 420 million, according to Census Bureau projections—more than four times the population of 1910. In order to reach the 83 percent reduction target, per-capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will have to be no more than 2.4 tons per person—only one-quarter the level of per-capita emissions in 1910.
When did the United States last experience per-capita CO2 emissions of only 2.4 tons? From the limited historical data available, it appears that this was about 1875. In 1875, the nation’s GDP (in 2008 dollars) was $147 billion, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was $3,300, and the population was only 45 million.
My colleague Kevin A. Hassett, Hayward and I have also written elsewhere about the problems with cap-and-trade and suggested that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be preferable,  but that, too, represents an effort to impose stasis on a dynamic system simply using more efficient means. A carbon tax is, to be sure, vastly superior to a cap-and-trade system, but there are doubts that it is politically possible to enact one in a way that is actually revenue-neutral and is not abused by politicians who will look to tax those they dislike and rebate the taxes to groups they favor, namely, those which are most inclined to vote for their party.
A more forward-looking, optimistic, and free-market approach to the risks of climate variability accepts that the climate has been, is, and will be variable; focuses on the risks of variability; and looks for ways to build resilience in the face of that change, regardless of cause.
Aaron Wildavsky’s Resilience Paradigm
Aaron Wildavsky, one of the great policy analysts of the late twentieth century, wrote extensively about the benefits of resilient social institutions. Wildavsky observed that possible risk-reduction interventions lie along a spectrum from resilient to interceptive. Resilient approaches maximize our ability to cope with risk by maintaining a dynamic, market-based, knowledge-building strategy. Interceptive interventions emphasize specific risk-reduction efforts that require certain specific actions and prohibit or restrict others.  But how do we decide, for a given risk such as climate change, whether an interceptive approach is more likely to provide greater safety than a resilient approach?
Employing both theory and empirical observation, Wildavsky observed that uncertainties about the likelihood or extent of any given risk and about the effectiveness of any intervention constrain risk-reduction decisions.  He clearly demonstrated that a strategy of risk-interception is likely to be successful only in situations of truly excellent information.
So, for example, for a power plant owner who knows that a particular part is going to burn out every 150 days an interception strategy of replacing the part every 149 days to prevent the risk is likely cost-effective. But where less information exists, more resilient strategies are likely to succeed, because interception will be either infeasible or expensive in such situations. If a power plant had 8,000 critical pieces of equipment that would create a fire upon failure but the plant owner did not know the failure rates of each piece, trying to intercept the risk by replacing pieces before they failed would be enormously costly. Further, trying to have backup systems on all 8,000 pieces would be technologically difficult and probably not financially feasible. Instead, a strategy of resilience, such as implementing a sophisticated fire-response system, is more likely to be a feasible and efficient way of dealing with this risk.
In the case of climate change, our knowledge of the nature and scope of risks and future conditions is low, and our knowledge about how to intervene to head off specific risks is small. This suggests that current policy approaches that focus on mitigating GHG emissions largely to the exclusion of everything else are simply a waste of attention and resources, and resilience should be considered the default climate strategy. And to a large extent, the resilience option is the complete opposite of the climate-stasis approach; it focuses on decentralization, deregulation, and freeing markets to maximize resilience.
Managing Risks with Resilience-building Policies
A vast range of risks has been discussed in the context of climate change, from flood to drought, threatened food supplies, more deadly insect-borne diseases; higher heat-related deaths; rising sea levels, and so forth. Several approaches economists and policy analysts have identified could help increase social resilience to such risks.
Eliminate risk subsidies. Predicted damages associated with sea levels and storms are high because of the popularity of such locales for high-density business and upscale residential development. As a result, damages from extreme coastal weather events have been hugely expensive. The damages from Hurricane Katrina, for example, reached over $150 billion.  The question, however, is why there was so much value that was so badly protected against completely predictable events? Levees and sea-walls were under-designed. Many houses and businesses were not insured against flood damage. As Charles Perrow observes in Our Next Catastrophe, “Even in areas known to be hazardous, only about 20 percent of homeowners purchase flood insurance, and less than 50 percent of businesses purchase flood and earthquake insurance in risky areas.”
The reason for much of that risk-taking is the role of state and federal governments as the insurer of last resort. People know that in the event of a disaster, even if uninsured, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will give grants to let people recover from natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and storm surges. Without such assurances, we can assume that many people would be unwilling to face the risk of living in coastal areas that could be flooded by rising sea levels, and would relocate to higher ground. Capital needed for businesses would also avoid areas of high-risk due to sea-level rise, preventing further siting of high-value structures in vulnerable areas. If risk subsidies cannot be abolished entirely, at the very least, they should charge risk-based premiums.
Privatize Infrastructure. Climate change could also pose a challenge for coastal or low-lying roadways, water-treatment facilities facing increased rainfall intensity, energy utilities facing increased summertime electricity demand, and so on. Governments are quite good at building infrastructure. After all, what politician does not enjoy a ribbon cutting ceremony for some new element of name-bearing infrastructure? But governments are dismal at maintaining infrastructure, as they generally fail to establish a revenue stream to maintain a system that provides feedback about whether a particular road should be raised or a water-treatment facility expanded or a power-capability increased. A solution to these problems, as well as a potential source of revenue for cash-strapped state and municipal governments is the privatization of infrastructure. While a few poorly executed privatization efforts have tarnished the name, the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater; privatization offers a host of benefits. A great deal of research on privatization in developing and developed countries demonstrates that, on the whole, privatization shows considerably more benefit than risk. One reason is that private owners of infrastructure have a lot of investment tied up in getting a long-run stream of revenue from the infrastructure. Ensuring that future changes in climate do not disrupt that long- run cash flow is critical to their current financial performance.
Roadways. If roads are privately owned and tolled, road operators have a revenue stream to tap in order to raise, resurface, or re-contour roadways to adapt to climate changes. If costs of such adaptation are high, tolls will rise, and at some point, an economic decision will occur about whether a road should be maintained, or whether some alternate route should be developed. In some cases people may indeed find their transportation options so limited that they must move away to a place with a less fragile climate. One can imagine something like this for some coastal roadways where there are no easy alternate routes, but it would probably be a fairly rare outcome. Still, if such situations did develop, this is a desirable outcome, as it is both economically efficient and reduces the likely cost of climate-related damages to structures.
Electricity Supply. As long as governments distort the prices consumers pay for energy with subsidies, fuel mandates, renewable power mandates and the like, electricity markets cannot effectively adapt to changing climatic conditions. If electricity markets were fully deregulated, and if full costs were passed onto consumers, price signals would be created for the electricity provider in terms of expanding or decreasing capacity and for the consumer in terms of the real cost of living in an environment subject to energy-consuming heat waves (or cold snaps). Privatization would create incentives for electricity conservation and for the acquisition of energy-efficient appliances and devices without any need for specific governmental efficiency standards. Further, electric companies would be driven to connect with one another to ensure reliability to their customers rather than doing the minimum possible to satisfy regulators.
Water Supply. Full pricing of water and full privatization of the water supply, drinking water plants, and wastewater treatment plants would ameliorate many climatic risks incrementally over time, including flooding, seawater intrusion, and coastal and river pollution from storm runoff. Charging the full price for water, from supply to disposal, would create a price signal for consumers regarding the real risks they face living in hydrologically sensitive areas and create incentives for conservation while producing a revenue stream to allow for expanded capability or the securing of alternative supplies. At some point, again, high prices could simply lead people to move away from areas that are hydrologically costly, such as cities dependent on a single winter snow pack that shrinks or a single major river that suffers reduced flow.
Flooding. What is not achieved by removing insurance subsidies in flood-prone areas can be managed through the creation of privately administered hydrologic utilities, which would be financed by flood-protection fees charged to residents of flood prone areas. Again, such a system creates a price signal that can show when it is and when it is not efficient to raise the height of a levee, for example, or to expand permeable surfacing requirements in development. The cost of paying for such activities would send the consumer a signal about the true cost of living in flood-prone areas, and would ultimately lead those who could not afford to fully finance their level of risk to relocate to safer areas.
Trust in Resilience, but Tie up Your Camel
In the event that climate change does tend toward higher estimates put forward by the United Nations and other groups, it is reasonable to consider insurance options that might help deal with such climate changes. Such options might include government investment in geoengineering research, investment in research and development to advance technologies allowing the removal of GHGs from the atmosphere, and possibly the creation of a climate adaptation fund to be used where state and local governments find themselves unable to cope with a given climate change, or even to compensate others should it ultimately be shown that U.S. emissions of GHGs have caused harm to other countries or the property of other individuals.
It has long been known that certain types of risk are not suited to attempted prevention, but instead must be met with the resilience needed to live with the risk. Climate change is one such risk that is, as the world is increasingly observing, virtually impossible to prevent, whether it is manmade or natural.
As efforts to mitigate GHGs fail around the world, it is long past time to broaden the tools available to us in order to make our society resilient to climate risk. Rather than remain largely focused on the quixotic effort to reduce GHG emissions or to stand athwart the stream of climate and shout “stop, enough!” we should shift the majority of our policymaking attention to an agenda of resilience building and adaptation, two areas  with which governments particularly struggle. Plan B for climate resilience should consist of an aggressive program of resilience building through the elimination of risk subsidies, and the privatization of infrastructure. Other subsidies and regulations that make the overall economy more brittle in the face of climate change would also be ripe targets for removal, such as those which permeate energy and water markets.
Climate Change: The Resilience Option
Kenneth P. Green
What Is Better, Climate Resilience or Climate Stasis?
In general, the mainstream response to the issue of climate change has been reactive, pessimistic, authoritarian, and resistant to change. Those alarmed about a changing climate would stand athwart the stream of climate history and cry “stop, enough!” Rather than working to cease human influence on climate, they want to find a way to make the climate stand still. This focus on creating climate stasis has led to policy proposals that would have been laughed at or dismissed as wacky conspiracy theories in the 1980s. But mainstream anti-climate-change activists are proposing nothing less than the establishment of global weather control through energy rationing, regulations, and taxes, all managed by a global bureaucracy with a goal of leading humanity into a future that will become smaller, more costly, and less dynamic over time. Environmental groups, along with organizations like the United Nations IPCC, are calling for nothing less than imposing climate stasis on a chaotic system.
Consider the climate bill now before Congress: the Waxman-Markey American Climate and Energy Security Act. Waxman-Markey sets the ambitious target of reducing total U.S. GHG emissions by 83 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050 (with intermediate benchmarks at 2020 and 2030). Thus, the cap and the allowances sold pursuant to it will be lowered from a peak of 5.4 billion tons in 2016 to just a little over 1 billion tons in 2050. As my colleague Steven F. Hayward and I have pointed out elsewhere, these targets are absurd.   From Department of Energy (DOE) historical statistics on energy consumption, it is possible to estimate that the United States last emitted 1 billion tons in the year 1910, when the nation’s population was only 92 million people, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was only $6,196, and total GDP (also in 2008 dollars) was about $572 billion—about one-twenty-fifth the size of the U.S. economy today. By the year 2050, however, the United States is expected to have a population of 420 million, according to Census Bureau projections—more than four times the population of 1910. In order to reach the 83 percent reduction target, per-capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will have to be no more than 2.4 tons per person—only one-quarter the level of per-capita emissions in 1910.
When did the United States last experience per-capita CO2 emissions of only 2.4 tons? From the limited historical data available, it appears that this was about 1875. In 1875, the nation’s GDP (in 2008 dollars) was $147 billion, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was $3,300, and the population was only 45 million.
My colleague Kevin A. Hassett, Hayward and I have also written elsewhere about the problems with cap-and-trade and suggested that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be preferable,  but that, too, represents an effort to impose stasis on a dynamic system simply using more efficient means. A carbon tax is, to be sure, vastly superior to a cap-and-trade system, but there are doubts that it is politically possible to enact one in a way that is actually revenue-neutral and is not abused by politicians who will look to tax those they dislike and rebate the taxes to groups they favor, namely, those which are most inclined to vote for their party.
A more forward-looking, optimistic, and free-market approach to the risks of climate variability accepts that the climate has been, is, and will be variable; focuses on the risks of variability; and looks for ways to build resilience in the face of that change, regardless of cause.
Aaron Wildavsky’s Resilience Paradigm
Aaron Wildavsky, one of the great policy analysts of the late twentieth century, wrote extensively about the benefits of resilient social institutions. Wildavsky observed that possible risk-reduction interventions lie along a spectrum from resilient to interceptive. Resilient approaches maximize our ability to cope with risk by maintaining a dynamic, market-based, knowledge-building strategy. Interceptive interventions emphasize specific risk-reduction efforts that require certain specific actions and prohibit or restrict others.  But how do we decide, for a given risk such as climate change, whether an interceptive approach is more likely to provide greater safety than a resilient approach?
Employing both theory and empirical observation, Wildavsky observed that uncertainties about the likelihood or extent of any given risk and about the effectiveness of any intervention constrain risk-reduction decisions.  He clearly demonstrated that a strategy of risk-interception is likely to be successful only in situations of truly excellent information.
So, for example, for a power plant owner who knows that a particular part is going to burn out every 150 days an interception strategy of replacing the part every 149 days to prevent the risk is likely cost-effective. But where less information exists, more resilient strategies are likely to succeed, because interception will be either infeasible or expensive in such situations. If a power plant had 8,000 critical pieces of equipment that would create a fire upon failure but the plant owner did not know the failure rates of each piece, trying to intercept the risk by replacing pieces before they failed would be enormously costly. Further, trying to have backup systems on all 8,000 pieces would be technologically difficult and probably not financially feasible. Instead, a strategy of resilience, such as implementing a sophisticated fire-response system, is more likely to be a feasible and efficient way of dealing with this risk.
In the case of climate change, our knowledge of the nature and scope of risks and future conditions is low, and our knowledge about how to intervene to head off specific risks is small. This suggests that current policy approaches that focus on mitigating GHG emissions largely to the exclusion of everything else are simply a waste of attention and resources, and resilience should be considered the default climate strategy. And to a large extent, the resilience option is the complete opposite of the climate-stasis approach; it focuses on decentralization, deregulation, and freeing markets to maximize resilience.
Managing Risks with Resilience-building Policies
A vast range of risks has been discussed in the context of climate change, from flood to drought, threatened food supplies, more deadly insect-borne diseases; higher heat-related deaths; rising sea levels, and so forth. Several approaches economists and policy analysts have identified could help increase social resilience to such risks.
Eliminate risk subsidies. Predicted damages associated with sea levels and storms are high because of the popularity of such locales for high-density business and upscale residential development. As a result, damages from extreme coastal weather events have been hugely expensive. The damages from Hurricane Katrina, for example, reached over $150 billion.  The question, however, is why there was so much value that was so badly protected against completely predictable events? Levees and sea-walls were under-designed. Many houses and businesses were not insured against flood damage. As Charles Perrow observes in Our Next Catastrophe, “Even in areas known to be hazardous, only about 20 percent of homeowners purchase flood insurance, and less than 50 percent of businesses purchase flood and earthquake insurance in risky areas.”
The reason for much of that risk-taking is the role of state and federal governments as the insurer of last resort. People know that in the event of a disaster, even if uninsured, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will give grants to let people recover from natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and storm surges. Without such assurances, we can assume that many people would be unwilling to face the risk of living in coastal areas that could be flooded by rising sea levels, and would relocate to higher ground. Capital needed for businesses would also avoid areas of high-risk due to sea-level rise, preventing further siting of high-value structures in vulnerable areas. If risk subsidies cannot be abolished entirely, at the very least, they should charge risk-based premiums.
Privatize Infrastructure. Climate change could also pose a challenge for coastal or low-lying roadways, water-treatment facilities facing increased rainfall intensity, energy utilities facing increased summertime electricity demand, and so on. Governments are quite good at building infrastructure. After all, what politician does not enjoy a ribbon cutting ceremony for some new element of name-bearing infrastructure? But governments are dismal at maintaining infrastructure, as they generally fail to establish a revenue stream to maintain a system that provides feedback about whether a particular road should be raised or a water-treatment facility expanded or a power-capability increased. A solution to these problems, as well as a potential source of revenue for cash-strapped state and municipal governments is the privatization of infrastructure. While a few poorly executed privatization efforts have tarnished the name, the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater; privatization offers a host of benefits. A great deal of research on privatization in developing and developed countries demonstrates that, on the whole, privatization shows considerably more benefit than risk. One reason is that private owners of infrastructure have a lot of investment tied up in getting a long-run stream of revenue from the infrastructure. Ensuring that future changes in climate do not disrupt that long- run cash flow is critical to their current financial performance.
Roadways. If roads are privately owned and tolled, road operators have a revenue stream to tap in order to raise, resurface, or re-contour roadways to adapt to climate changes. If costs of such adaptation are high, tolls will rise, and at some point, an economic decision will occur about whether a road should be maintained, or whether some alternate route should be developed. In some cases people may indeed find their transportation options so limited that they must move away to a place with a less fragile climate. One can imagine something like this for some coastal roadways where there are no easy alternate routes, but it would probably be a fairly rare outcome. Still, if such situations did develop, this is a desirable outcome, as it is both economically efficient and reduces the likely cost of climate-related damages to structures.
Electricity Supply. As long as governments distort the prices consumers pay for energy with subsidies, fuel mandates, renewable power mandates and the like, electricity markets cannot effectively adapt to changing climatic conditions. If electricity markets were fully deregulated, and if full costs were passed onto consumers, price signals would be created for the electricity provider in terms of expanding or decreasing capacity and for the consumer in terms of the real cost of living in an environment subject to energy-consuming heat waves (or cold snaps). Privatization would create incentives for electricity conservation and for the acquisition of energy-efficient appliances and devices without any need for specific governmental efficiency standards. Further, electric companies would be driven to connect with one another to ensure reliability to their customers rather than doing the minimum possible to satisfy regulators.
Water Supply. Full pricing of water and full privatization of the water supply, drinking water plants, and wastewater treatment plants would ameliorate many climatic risks incrementally over time, including flooding, seawater intrusion, and coastal and river pollution from storm runoff. Charging the full price for water, from supply to disposal, would create a price signal for consumers regarding the real risks they face living in hydrologically sensitive areas and create incentives for conservation while producing a revenue stream to allow for expanded capability or the securing of alternative supplies. At some point, again, high prices could simply lead people to move away from areas that are hydrologically costly, such as cities dependent on a single winter snow pack that shrinks or a single major river that suffers reduced flow.
Flooding. What is not achieved by removing insurance subsidies in flood-prone areas can be managed through the creation of privately administered hydrologic utilities, which would be financed by flood-protection fees charged to residents of flood prone areas. Again, such a system creates a price signal that can show when it is and when it is not efficient to raise the height of a levee, for example, or to expand permeable surfacing requirements in development. The cost of paying for such activities would send the consumer a signal about the true cost of living in flood-prone areas, and would ultimately lead those who could not afford to fully finance their level of risk to relocate to safer areas.
Trust in Resilience, but Tie up Your Camel
In the event that climate change does tend toward higher estimates put forward by the United Nations and other groups, it is reasonable to consider insurance options that might help deal with such climate changes. Such options might include government investment in geoengineering research, investment in research and development to advance technologies allowing the removal of GHGs from the atmosphere, and possibly the creation of a climate adaptation fund to be used where state and local governments find themselves unable to cope with a given climate change, or even to compensate others should it ultimately be shown that U.S. emissions of GHGs have caused harm to other countries or the property of other individuals.
It has long been known that certain types of risk are not suited to attempted prevention, but instead must be met with the resilience needed to live with the risk. Climate change is one such risk that is, as the world is increasingly observing, virtually impossible to prevent, whether it is manmade or natural.
As efforts to mitigate GHGs fail around the world, it is long past time to broaden the tools available to us in order to make our society resilient to climate risk. Rather than remain largely focused on the quixotic effort to reduce GHG emissions or to stand athwart the stream of climate and shout “stop, enough!” we should shift the majority of our policymaking attention to an agenda of resilience building and adaptation, two areas  with which governments particularly struggle. Plan B for climate resilience should consist of an aggressive program of resilience building through the elimination of risk subsidies, and the privatization of infrastructure. Other subsidies and regulations that make the overall economy more brittle in the face of climate change would also be ripe targets for removal, such as those which permeate energy and water markets.
1. Steven F. Hayward and Kenneth P. Green, “Waxman-Markey: An Exercise in Unreality,” AEI Energy and Environment Outlook, no. 3 (July 2009), available at www.aei.org/outlook/100057.
2. It is possible that per-capita CO2 emissions were never this low even before the advent of widespread use of fossil fuels: wood burning by Americans in the nineteenth century may have produced more than 2.4 tons of CO2 per capita. Much depends on the emissions coefficient for wood burning and how, since wood is biomass rather than a fossil fuel, reforestation is credited in carbon accounting. In 1875, burning wood generated twice as much energy as fossil fuels.
3. Kenneth P. Green, Steven F. Hayward, and Kevin A. Hassett, “Climate Change: Caps vs. Taxes,” AEI Environment and Energy Outlook, no. 2 (June 2007), available at www.aei.org/outlook/26286.
4. Aaron Wildavsky, Searching for Safety (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1988). Wildavsky used the terms “resilience” and “anticipation” rather than “resilience” and “interception.” In adapting Wildavsky’s framework to more recent risk-related issues, I have chosen to use “interception” because it corresponds better to common perceptions of how risk regulations work.
5. Ibid.
6. Mark L. Burton and Michael J. Hicks, “Hurricane Katrina, Preliminary Estimates of Commercial and Public Sector Damages” (Huntington, WV: Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research, September 2005), available at www.marshall.edu/cber/research/katrina/Katrina-Estimates.pdf (accessed September 24, 2009).
7. Charles Perrow, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natrual, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007): 37–38.
This post is an excerpt from a longer Environment and Energy Outlook, published by the American Enterprise Institute. The full study can be found here.

In general, the mainstream response to the issue of climate change has been reactive, pessimistic, authoritarian, and resistant to change. Those alarmed about a changing climate would stand athwart the stream of climate history and cry “stop, enough!” Rather than working to cease human influence on climate, they want to find a way to make the climate stand still. This focus on creating climate stasis has led to policy proposals that would have been laughed at or dismissed as wacky conspiracy theories in the 1980s. But mainstream anti-climate-change activists are proposing nothing less than the establishment of global weather control through energy rationing, regulations, and taxes, all managed by a global bureaucracy with a goal of leading humanity into a future that will become smaller, more costly, and less dynamic over time. Environmental groups, along with organizations like the United Nations IPCC, are calling for nothing less than imposing climate stasis on a chaotic system.

Consider the climate bill now before Congress: the Waxman-Markey American Climate and Energy Security Act. Waxman-Markey sets the ambitious target of reducing total U.S. GHG emissions by 83 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050 (with intermediate benchmarks at 2020 and 2030). Thus, the cap and the allowances sold pursuant to it will be lowered from a peak of 5.4 billion tons in 2016 to just a little over 1 billion tons in 2050. As my colleague Steven F. Hayward and I have pointed out elsewhere, these targets are absurd.   From Department of Energy (DOE) historical statistics on energy consumption, it is possible to estimate that the United States last emitted 1 billion tons in the year 1910, when the nation’s population was only 92 million people, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was only $6,196, and total GDP (also in 2008 dollars) was about $572 billion—about one-twenty-fifth the size of the U.S. economy today. By the year 2050, however, the United States is expected to have a population of 420 million, according to Census Bureau projections—more than four times the population of 1910. In order to reach the 83 percent reduction target, per-capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will have to be no more than 2.4 tons per person—only one-quarter the level of per-capita emissions in 1910.

When did the United States last experience per-capita CO2 emissions of only 2.4 tons? From the limited historical data available, it appears that this was about 1875. In 1875, the nation’s GDP (in 2008 dollars) was $147 billion, per-capita income (in 2008 dollars) was $3,300, and the population was only 45 million.

My colleague Kevin A. Hassett, Hayward and I have also written elsewhere about the problems with cap-and-trade and suggested that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be preferable,  but that, too, represents an effort to impose stasis on a dynamic system simply using more efficient means. A carbon tax is, to be sure, vastly superior to a cap-and-trade system, but there are doubts that it is politically possible to enact one in a way that is actually revenue-neutral and is not abused by politicians who will look to tax those they dislike and rebate the taxes to groups they favor, namely, those which are most inclined to vote for their party.

A more forward-looking, optimistic, and free-market approach to the risks of climate variability accepts that the climate has been, is, and will be variable; focuses on the risks of variability; and looks for ways to build resilience in the face of that change, regardless of cause.

Aaron Wildavsky’s Resilience Paradigm

Aaron Wildavsky, one of the great policy analysts of the late twentieth century, wrote extensively about the benefits of resilient social institutions. [Read more →]

October 23, 2009   4 Comments