An Interview With Thomas Schelling, Part Two


This is the second part of my interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling. Part one is here. In this part we talk very generally about climate change: Why it matters, and whether or not it's possible to reach an international agreement on the issue. My questions are in bold.


I wanted to go back to the international climate-change negotiation process. So assuming we had a perfect U.S. bill -- written by you or by 15 experts working on this full time -- how would the international negotiation process work? It's not obvious that averting global climate change is in the rational self-interest of anyone that is alive today. The serious consequences probably won't occur until 2080 or 2100 or thereafter. That's one problem. Another problem is that those consequences are going to be distributed in a radically uneven way. The northwest of the United States might actually benefit. So how does a negotiation process work? How does a generation today negotiate on behalf of future generations? And how do we negotiate when the costs are distributed so unevenly?

Well I do think that one of the difficulties is that most of the beneficiaries aren't yet born. More than that: Most of the beneficiaries will be born in what we now call the developing world. By 2080 or 2100 five-sixths of the population, at least, will be in places like China, India, Indonesia, Africa and so forth. And what I don't know is whether Americans are really willing to understand that and do anything for the benefit of the unborn Chinese.

It's a tough sell. And probably you have to find ways to exaggerate the threat. And you can in fact find ways to make the threat serious. I think there's a significant likelihood of a kind of a runaway release of carbon and methane from permafrost, and from huge offshore deposits of methane all around the world. If you begin to get methane leaking on a large scale -- even though methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere very long -- it might warm things up fast enough that it will induce further methane release, which will warm things up more, which will release more. And that will create a huge multiplier effect, and it could become very serious.

And you mean serious for everyone, including the United States?

Yes, for almost anybody.

And when you say, "exaggerate the costs" do you mean, American politicians should exaggerate the costs to the American public, to get American support for a bill that will overwhelmingly benefit the developing world?

[Laughs] It's very hard to get honest people.

Well, part of me sympathizes with the case for disingenuousness! I mean, it seems to me that there is a strong moral case for helping unborn Bangladeshi citizens. But I don't know how you sell that. It's not in anyone's rational interest, at least in the US, to legislate on that basis.

That's a problem. The standard of living in the United States will almost certainly be higher in 80 years than it is now.

And do you think that's true of India?

No! I think the best hope for India is to grow its economy as fast as it can in order to outgrow its vulnerability to climate change. Most of the vulnerability is agriculture. And I think the impact on agriculture is especially worrying in areas that are dependent on snowpack in the high mountains. That's true of China, India, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Peru, Chile and Argentina. It's even true of California! One of the worst effects is going to be, that what would have been snow falls as rain. Or what would have been thawing the late spring becomes thawing the early spring, and what these nations depend on for irrigation will have run into the ocean before they can use it -- unless there are huge efforts to build water storage and transport units. Which require an immense process of building dams and so forth, which I don't think anyone is willing to face up to yet.

If I were to come clean to the American public I would say that, except for a very low probability of a very bad result -- which is the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would put Washington DC under water -- we are probably going to outgrow any vulnerability we have to climate change. And in case we'll be able to afford to buy food or import it is necessary. You know, very little of the US economy is susceptible to climate. All of agriculture is less than 3% of our gross product. Forestry may be endangered. Fisheries may be endangered. But recreation might actually benefit!

So if we can double our GDP in the next 70 or 80 years, even if we lose some of our GDP from climate change -- even if we lose 10% of our GDP from climate change -- we're still ahead so much that the effect of climate change wouldn't be noticed. But it would be pretty disastrous in a lot of the less developed parts of the world. And that's why I think it's crucially important not to demand anything of China, India and so forth that will significantly impede their economic progress.

And there's sort of a cruel paradox there. On the one hand, it does seem like you want to say to India and China, "Grow your economies so that you have a greater capacity to adapt to climate change." On the other hand, it seems like that growth will also exacerbate the effects of the climate change. It seems like the growth that creates adaptive capacity is racing against the growth that is aggravating what the adaptive capacity is needed to protect against.

Presented by

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.

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