Common Ground

The Conversation
August 29, 2008

I’d like to thank Cato Unbound for convening such an extended exchange of views on how to deal with climate change, and for giving me a platform for expressing my views on this subject.  I’d also like to thank Joseph Romm, Indur Goklany, Michael Shellenberger, and Ted Nordhaus for their extensive efforts in considering and responding to my essay and subsequent comments.  It’s always inspiring to me to see people who’ve devoted so much time, work, and intellect to analyzing hard problems.

Mr. Romm and I in particular have disagreed quite directly about the likely impacts of carbon dioxide emissions, and I’ll just refer interested readers to the series of detailed exchanges between us, and ask them to draw their own conclusions.  Rather than use this closing comment to respond to the last round of replies by each contributor (it seems kind of unfair that I would get both “first ups” and “last licks,” as we used to say in Little League), I’d like to try to establish what I think is common ground between us.  I think that vigorous but respectful and fact-based disagreement is almost always a precondition for practical progress on complicated issues, but that ultimately some consensus needs to be achieved to get anything done.

It seems to me that all contributors believe that anthropogenic global warming is real and poses a serious risk.  We all agree that an R&D program of the type that I have proposed is a component of a solution, and I hope that we all can get behind this idea.  I think that we would all support adaptation to weather problems that may arise as a wise investment of resources.  Most adaptation measures have the advantage that, in comparison with R&D or mitigation efforts, they can be executed in fairly short order and only in response to problems as they become manifest, and hence would likely have very attractive cost-benefit ratios.  Finally, I think that we would all agree that the ongoing efforts to analyze physical and economic trade-offs involved in various proposals through the IPCC and similar bodies are valuable and should be supported.   (In fact, I would like to see such processes incorporate case-by-case analyses of the kinds of incremental R&D/technology-deployment ideas that Messrs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus have proposed).  Improved science, along with increased structure and rigor in the debate of its implications, should enable further progress.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Keeping Our Cool: What to Do about Global Warming by Jim Manzi

    The prospect of potentially catastrophic global warming forces us to make decisions under extreme uncertainty. Yet, Jim Manzi writes, “Despite the rhetoric, the best available estimate of the damage we face from unconstrained global warming is not ‘global destruction,’ but is instead costs on the order of 3 percent of global GDP in a much wealthier world well over a hundred years from now.” Manzi explores how best to evaluate the costs of greenhouse gas abatement on the present-day economy when compared to the long-term benefits of avoiding global warming. He concludes that there are very few benefits from these steps.

Response Essays

  • A Small Cost Will Avoid a Catastrophe by Joseph Romm

    American Progress Senior Fellow Joseph Romm argues that atmospheric CO2 has already reached an unacceptable level, and that urgent action is needed in the next few years. Fortunately, this action need not involve prohibitive costs. Indeed, many possible options for greenhouse gas abatement will result in economic benefits.

    These changes are desperately needed, too, before global warming reaches a tipping point beyond which the carbon sequestered in permafrost is also released into the atmosphere, aggravating the problem. Should we fail to act, widespread desertification, massive species extinction, and other catastrophic events are predicted, even by authorities whom Jim Manzi also accepts.

  • Reducing Vulnerability to Climate-Sensitive Risks is the Best Insurance Policy by Indur Goklany

    Indur Goklany argues, in response to Jim Manzi and Joseph Romm, that solving the likely problems resulting from global warming will be both cheaper and more effective than any global response aimed at stabilizing or changing the climate itself. Harm reduction will also pay important dividends regardless of the degree of global warming, since it will include the development of new treatments for diseases, better flood protection, improved crops, and general economic advancements for the developing world. When taken together, these factors will help us to face any global warming scenario effectively, and they will also offer even larger benefits outside any considerations of climate.

  • The New Climate Center: How Technology Could Create a Political Breakthrough by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

    Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus describe what they see as a significant political realignment: Both left and right, they claim, are converging on a state-sponsored and technology-based solution to global warming, one that will emphasize clean energy and/or carbon sequestration technologies. They argue that the debate about climate modeling is largely irrelevant and/or unproductive, because these technologies are generally agreed to be important in their own right and to have positive economic effects regardless of the degree of severity of global warming. They call on policymakers to embrace a large-scale, state-funded effort to achieve these breakthrough technologies and argue that state sponsorship for technological advancement is, historically speaking, the engine of much progress and innovation. This, they argue, is a reason to embrace the same approach with regard to global warming.

The Conversation