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Climate change ISN'T affordable, but dealing with it is

The Wall Street Journal's @HolmanJenkins authored an op-ed entitled "Climate Change is Affordable." He gets a few things wrong or misinterprets some numbers, and the record should be set straight. Environmental damages from unmitigated climate change would be calamitous, and it's not "hysterical" to suggest otherwise, as he does. The economic costs of unmitigated climate change would be quite painful, and downplaying them as he does is irresponsible. Jenkins is 100% correct however, that there are sensible actions we can and should take, and that those actions won't break the bank.

Jenkins, in his critique of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, writes that the costs of unmitigated climate change would be "manageable," at $510 Billion in 2090. Let's unpack that. First, it's important to note that $510 Billion is the cost in 2090, not cumulatively through 2090. It's an annual average cost. $510 Billion each year, or, put another way, 70% of the cost the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which made many deficit hawks apoplectic. 70% of TARP each year. Is $510 Billion a year manageable? Jenkins notes that, if GDP in 2090 is $61 Trillion, then 510B, "paying this bill [i.e., accepting the costs of the damage] would be a nuisance." A nuisance?! $510B is 0.83% of that $61 Trillion. Less than 1% may seem small, but 0.83% is roughly equal to HALF of GDP growth. Said another way, allowing unmitigated emissions would cut 1/2 of GDP growth annually. That's the path we're on now.

Jenkins writes that the authors only evaluated the highest emissions climate scenario, implying that the authors put their thumbs on the scale in order to show an unnaturally high cost. Well, no. First of all, the report does discuss and show graphs of multiple emissions scenarios. It is true that the costs of unmitigated climate change are shown only as the difference between a high case and a mitigation case. But there are several good reasons for this choice. First, the reason the report isn't longer (Jenkins complains about the length, as if brevity is a sign of scientific integrity) is that they chose to show an upper end estimate rather than all of the possibilities as a way to frame the future and, yes, to minimize confusion about interpretation. The report would be even more dense, and harder for a lay audience to interpret with multiple scenarios. Do just a little more digging and you will find many model runs of multiple scenarios, albeit in related documents; all it takes is following a citation or two. One might argue that, if you're choosing only one scenario then it is disingenuous to show only the most extreme case; why not show the lowest case, if you're worried about length and misinterpretation? The answer is twofold: First, the trajectory we are now on- in the immediate future- is close to the high emissions pathway. The report shows a high probability that in the near future, emissions will come disturbingly close to a high case. Second, the Trump administration, through its abhorrent climate policies, is doing all it can to keep us on this current path. Showing the costs of the high emissions scenario is not disingenuous, it's sadly realistic given who the authors work for.

But there's more. Though Jenkins derides the assessment's authors for choosing only the highest emission path rather than a more conservative scenario, in fact the cost estimates are quite conservative. Again, all one needs to do is follow a citation or two. For example, the models aren’t able to account for all costs, and one BIG expense left out is a complete accounting of the extreme temperature mortality estimate. The current costs include excess deaths from only 49 major cities, covering only 1/3 of the population. Moreover, 2nd-order costs are left out, like the multiplier effect from loss of fishing activity to local economies, caused by loss of freshwater. These are just two examples of omitted costs, but there is another way the estimate is conservative - the costs are an average of multiple models' runs. The government authors could have chosen the model with the highest cost estimates, which, given the uncertainty and the non-linearity of environmental damage functions, would have been defensible, too.

There's an undercurrent of ill will, mistrust and scorn in Jenkins' assessment of the assessment. Somehow the fact that multiple government agencies were involved is a subject of ridicule. Having been on the inside at two government agencies (and worked closely with some of the report's authors years ago), I can tell you that each government branch would much rather work by themselves; the coordination is painful and slow, and branches and offices have their own models, tools, and views. But the coordination is the right thing to do, and everyone knows it, because the outcome is ultimately a more defensible, unified and apolitical message.

Jenkins also seems to deride the fact that the report is long! Sorry, but this is a sign of serious and rigorous work, performed by conscientious scientists and economists. These kind of assessments can't be done in a 500 word piece nor a tweet. For those of us who don't have time to read the whole report, there is an executive summary and an interactive web page. But denigrating the authors because they performed the hard work of a rigorous assessment is not just mean, it's part of the same anti-intellectual and anti-expert spirit that pervades much of our discourse today. 

That anti-intellectual spirit's most vociferous champion happens to occupy the Oval Office right now and, as miraculous as it is that the report was not embargoed, it was pathetically predictable that the administration would try to dismiss it. Not predictable however, was Sarah Huckabee Sanders' claim that the report was "not based on facts," and that she'd "like to see something that is more data driven." There's too much to unpack here, and I certainly wouldn't want to be accused of writing too many words!

Climate change is real, it's undeniable, it's here, and its causes have been known beyond reasonable doubt for years, to anyone paying attention. The latest reports only put an exclamation mark on this reality. Advocating inaction is not just economically foolish, it's plainly immoral. But are we doomed and cooked already? Certainly the odds are not in our favor, and we will likely have to live in or pass on a less-livable and more dangerous planet than the one we were born into.

But we can still avert the worst case outcome - we don't have to be on the high emissions scenario forever. Jenkins gets one thing right - sensible solutions abound. Yes, confronting and mitigating climate change will cost money. But so do all good investments. As @JigarShah has argued, mitigating climate change is the largest wealth creation opportunity we've even been given. There are the costs to be averted, and there are costs to invest. Let's get to it.

Michael Leifman's picture

Thank Michael for the Post!

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