As the World Warms

Gregg Easterbrook talks about his cover story, "Global Warming: Who Loses—and Who Wins?," and the unexpected by-products of climate change.

On a 1997 episode of Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley rampaged around a Weather Channel set dressed as a Mexican wrestler, rumbling, “I am El Nino! All other tropical storms must bow before me!” He was parodying the powerful mass of warm surface water then circulating in the eastern Pacific—a phenomenon on which the media seemed to blame nearly every meteorological event at the time, from floods in California to storms in the Great Lakes to mild winters in New England.

Also See:

"Global Warming: Who Loses—and Who Wins?" (March 2001)
Climate change in the next century (and beyond) could be enormously disruptive, spreading disease and sparking wars. It could also be a windfall for some people. By Gregg Easterbrook

These days, climate change makes the easy mark. It seems to be held liable for every weather-borne offense that now afflicts us, from iron-hot summers to pipe-freezing winters, searing droughts to torrential rains, desertification to drowning polar bears. And should you be brave enough to read any of the predictive literature about climate change’s long-term effects, you’ll soon find yourself mired in a speculative litany of disasters rivaling the Book of Revelations.

Yet you are right to worry, says Gregg Easterbrook in The Atlantic’s latest cover story. Excess carbon dioxide is warping our climate already, and the worst effects likely loom ahead. So what to do? Digging a hole in a nearby beach and inserting your head is one option; but we've tried that as a society for sometime to little avail. Global panic is another option; but, as it turns out, we’ll need to keep cool in order to cash in.

And cash in we can, Easterbrook argues. As with all great challenges that have confronted mankind, the roiling climate will churn out winners and losers. Some people—Russians, for instance—should fare quite well in a warming climate. Others—like Bangladeshis—ought to be looking now for new digs. But Easterbrook’s point is that we can no longer abide either ignorance or alarmism; climate change is upon us, its effects are real, and the sooner we start to realistically adapt, the better our chances of emerging in the winner’s circle.

Easterbrook is an Atlantic contributing editor. We spoke by phone in mid-February.

—Timothy Lavin

You’ve covered climate change for some time. But in the last few months the terms of the discussion seem to have shifted substantially—we no longer argue about whether the world is warming, but about what to do about it. What’s changed?

It’s clearly the accumulation of scientific evidence, especially in the last five years. The evidence has been very strong, so much so that even at the White House level it’s no longer denied. When the Bush Administration came to office, the president and all of his chief advisors constantly emphasized scientific uncertainty and the need for more research. And they don’t talk about that anymore. They’re still trying to sort of waffle on what to do about the problem. But they no longer talk about the scientific uncertainty because at this point while there may be a lot of uncertainty about exactly what’s going to happen, there’s no uncertainty about the fact that some degree of climate change is now in progress.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its most recent assessment that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” Do you think doubts about the science underlying global warming have been laid to rest?

No, there’s still a huge range of doubt about exactly why climate change is happening. We have no idea what component is natural and what part is artificial and no one has even the slightest clue about exactly what’s going to happen, what the degree of change will be. And you can’t even be sure it’s going to be bad—it may be that change on balance will be good. But as recently as five years ago a lot of serious people entertained the idea that there was no climate change, that this was just some crazy claim or that it was faulty research or that too little was known to be able to say what’s going on. But now, especially in the last five years, but in the last fifteen years overall—especially with studies of ocean temperatures (since the oceans contain most of the surface mass of the earth that’s really more significant to temperature change than the air)—it’s clear that something is going on. And whatever is happening is happening a lot faster than most observers who are serious about this issue expected.

Early in this article you ask, “If the world warms, who will win? Who will lose?” But even the winners in this equation would seem to face grave risks. The Inuit of Canada may come to own valuable ports, for instance, but their traditional ways of feeding themselves and making a living will be decimated as the animals they hunt disappear. I suspect many people will consider the question and answer, “We will all lose.”

No, I don’t think so. In economics we don’t find many zero sum games and I don’t think this is a zero sum game. I think a lot of people and nations will come out ahead. The Inuit—the little semi-nation of Nunavut—is going to become significantly more valuable in a warming world. Right now Nunavut’s a frozen wasteland. I would love to be the guy with the Nunavut promotion account twenty years from now because I’m going to rechristen the place “the gateway to the hemispheres” and invite celebrities, and cruise ships will be stopping by, and the sign on the dock will say, “Welcome to Nunavut, Gateway to the Hemispheres!” We’ll see all kinds of wild economic activity up there. There will be change, yes. The traditional way of life will fade and be replaced with something else, maybe something zany, but change seems an inevitability of human experience. Really no society on earth, maybe the ones in the Amazon basin are the only exception, has been able to insulate itself from change. We can’t insulate ourselves from it and I doubt the Inuit will ever be able to do that, either.

You say that we have to make our peace with climate change and learn to adapt to it, even if this seems like capitulation. But some might say the information age has provided the perfect set of solutions for the ills of the industrial age. Between technological advances, rising wealth and the ability to coordinate action across the world like never before, we have many tools with which to fight a changing climate. Is it possible that we’re conceding defeat too early?

I think at this point some form of mandatory greenhouse gas restrictions are justified; the sooner the United States enacts them the better, as long as the're wisely written. I’m an optimist on this issue and I think that control of greenhouse gases will turn out to be cheaper than predicted and will turn out to work faster than predicted and that human ingenuity will be much more creative than people think. So within a realistic length of time—say, your lifetime—this problem of artificially triggered climate change will be brought under control. But even if reforms are really successful, as long as greenhouse theory is correct, a warming world is absolutely cast in stone—the armies of the world could not prevent it at this point. And even really successful programs of greenhouse gas reduction in the developed nations will not stop increasing accumulation in the atmosphere for at least several decades, and maybe longer. And unless greenhouse gas theory is totally wrong, in which case we don’t have to care about this, the world is going to get warmer and the climate is going to change and we must make our peace with it because we can’t stop it. That’s not capitulation, that’s pragmatism.

Most of the plans for fighting global warming now floating around Congress look to me like poll-tested half-measures that ignore the severity of the problem. Can the U.S. government possibly become a leader on this issue?

Sure. There are two possible things that we could do that seem realistic at this point. One is to implement a really good cap and trade system for all U.S. industry, modeled on the cap and trade system that was very successful in controlling acid rain. Remember, as recently as about 1990 acid rain was going to be the new silent spring; the Appalachians were going to be destroyed, et cetera. Congress enacted a cap and trade system in 1991, which meant setting a limit on the amount of acid rain that could be emitted by power plants and industrial facilities and then allowing them to trade the permits freely among themselves so that people could quickly discover the cheapest possible solutions. And what happened? People quickly discovered the cheapest possible solutions. At the time of passage, reducing a ton of sulfur dioxide—the main cause of acid rain—was expected to cost about $1,000. It ended up that most of the reduction was achieved at about $150 to $175 a ton; so less than 20 percent of the predicted cost. Acid rain is now off the political radar because the problem is, not solved, but it’s diminished so much that it’s no longer perceived as a threat.

So the first thing we could do is enact a similar system. We will probably price greenhouse gas reduction at about $25 a ton. That’s the equivalent of five or six cents on a gallon of gasoline. It’s enough financial incentive that people would discover that they had a profit motive for reducing greenhouse gases. And this would, I think, result in a burst of creativity and people coming up with cheap solutions. But it’s not so high that it would be likely to interfere with the economy. And in fact investors are already betting that this is going to happen. You can link to the Web site of the Chicago Climate Exchange in Chicago where, as of today (I just checked) greenhouse gas reduction futures are selling for $3.90 in the year 2010. In other words, investors are willing to promise that for $3.90, three years from now, they’ll eliminate a ton of greenhouse gases. Well, if Congress prices greenhouse gas reduction at $25 a ton, which is I think the number that they will choose, that’s a pretty good investment, isn’t it? People are already looking ahead to this.

The second and larger thing the United States could do, and I hope we will do it eventually, is join in some sort of greater international cap and trade framework. There is sort of one under the Kyoto treaty. It doesn’t work very well, and the Senate will never ratify the Kyoto treaty anyway. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t simply do this on a bilateral basis—say with China and India. If your goal is reduce greenhouse gases, it’s far more logical to spend your money and invest your capital in China and India than it is in the United States, because the bang for your buck in terms of greenhouse gas reduction there is many orders of magnitude higher there than it is here. A lot of the people who talk about greenhouse gas reduction focusing on the United States just seem to want some sort of punitive measure that harms American industry so they can feel good and go back to their Chablis and brie. If your real goal is to reduce greenhouse gas accumulation, or to at least slow the rate—slowing the rate of accumulation is the best possible scenario at the moment—you want to spend your money in China and India.

From the archives:

"Our Real China Problem" (March 2001)
Although the Chinese government knows the environment needs protection, it fears that doing the right thing could be political suicide. By Mark Hertsgaard

American coal-fired power plants, for example, average around 37 to 40 percent efficiency (that’s the percentage of the coal that they take in that’s converted into useful power). Chinese power plants right now are at 18 to 19 percent, so they’re burning twice as much coal and thus releasing twice the volume of greenhouse gases to produce the same unit of energy we produce here. If American capital and expertise did nothing in the next 20 years except raise the efficiency of Chinese coal-fired power plants—if that’s the only thing we did—it would be probably the single greatest contribution to slowing the rate of greenhouse gas accumulation that anybody could make in the world. It would certainly exceed any possible reform here in the United States. And so a really forward-looking program whose goal was to reduce the environmental harm, rather than engaging in some sort of therapeutic blame-shifting exercise about industry, would focus on China and India. And other developing nations, too, but there’s so much work to be done in China and India that you could spend a generation just helping them.

Why shouldn’t the government, with all its resources, take a much more active role in finding a solution—like, say, funding a research scheme along the lines of the Manhattan project, as many commentators have suggested?

From the archives:

"A Good Climate for Investment" (June 1998)
Reducing reliance on carbon for energy—to safeguard our atmosphere and our climate—could bring about not personal deprivation but a worldwide economic boom. By Ross Gelbspan

"Can Selfishness Save the Environment?" (September 1993)
Conventional wisdom has it that the way to avert global ecological disaster is to persuade people to change their selfish habits. A more sensible approach would be to tap the human propensity for thinking mainly of short term self-interest. By Matt Ridley and Bobbi S. Low

Oh, God, the last thing you want is for the government to try to figure out a solution! What the government needs to do is price the problem. In economics, greenhouse gases are a free good, there’s no cost involved in emitting them, so no one has any profit incentive to reduce the emissions. Government needs to create a framework in which a price is attached to the emission of greenhouse gases. The creation of a price will in turn allow people to make a profit by finding the solution. And once people have a profit incentive you’re going to find a huge outpouring of creativity on the part of engineers coming up with technical ideas and business people coming up with entrepreneurial ideas. But the last thing you want is for government to try to pick winners and losers in an industry. The government’s track record in energy research is pitiful. If you look at the billions of dollars that have been spent since the first Arab oil crunch of 1974, in the ‘70s and ‘80s we were spending eight or nine billion dollars a year (stated in today’s dollars) on federal subsidized energy research, and if anything useful came out of that research I’m sure not aware of it. All the breakthroughs in pollution reduction and energy efficiency—the things that actually work in the marketplace—have come at the behest of private entrepreneurs and engineers who are seeking profit. And so what we need to do now is create a profit motive for greenhouse gas reduction and apart from that, government should stay out of it. In the current federal budget there’s almost five billion dollars for energy conservation research—I wish there was zero in the current federal budget. Progress would be faster.

But on an issue that’s so crucial for human survival, are you sure that we can trust the markets to deliver a moral solution—a solution that’s efficient without being exploitative, or that won’t create more environmental problems than it solves?

I can’t tell you what the markets will deliver because that’s the nature of markets. I can tell you that government attempts to devise technology for consumer applications have consistently been fiascos. Go have a look at the Boeing wind turbine that was designed in the late 1970s. The Department of Energy spent two or three billion dollars subsidizing Boeing to construct a wind turbine for the first attempts at wind energy. The thing looks a piece of the space shuttle. It’s about—it was, nobody uses them now—about five times the size of the wind turbines that turned out to work. Huge amounts of money were spent on it, nothing was ever produced, none of them ever went into service. The wind turbines that are now being put into use to generate electricity around the world are all privately designed. Some of them by American companies like General Electric, some of them by a Brazilian company that’s turned out to be really good at designing wind turbines. People whose jobs are on the line if they fail and who make a profit if they succeed are really good at solving engineering problems. Civil servants whose pay is the same regardless of the outcome of their work, they’re not the ideal people for this kind of thing. And the history of energy R&D is just one of many areas where we’ve seen that the government’s really good at setting rule structures, but it’s not very good at applied engineering.

Do any of the 11,000 or so candidates now vying for the presidential nomination seem to you to have a suitably ambitious energy platform?

Several have endorsed something similar to the McCain-Lieberman bill of two years ago, which would have set a very modest cap and trade system for power plants. I would say that McCain-Lieberman would be preferable to inaction, but it’s a very modest plan. Barack Obama has proposed to codify in legislation what President Bush spoke about as an executive order in his State of the Union address—that the fuel efficiency of new automobile models must be raised by four percent per year indefinitely. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you do the math it only takes 10 years to raise the fuel efficiency of new vehicles by a third. This would not only be terrific for reducing the rate of greenhouse gas accumulation but would also allow us to eliminate most of the oil we import from Persian Gulf dictatorships. So those are the two bills that seem most significant to me. But to my knowledge no major presidential candidate has yet proposed the sort of really sweeping ideas such as large-scale cooperation with China and India that we were just talking about.

In your book The Progress Paradox, you argue that one reason we tend to feel worse as a society even as our health and prosperity improve is that our cultural elites push bad news on us as a way of asserting their superiority. Some people make a similar critique of climate-change alarmists. Would you agree with them?

Well, there was a lot of bad news pushed by climate change alarmists. The obvious example is Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. That movie uses the worst-case scenario for everything—20-foot rise in sea levels for example, which is a crazy number. But suppose you took the real number from the National Academy of Sciences, a sea level rise of eight inches to three feet in the next century. The real number is plenty scary enough. You don’t need this silly Hollywood exaggeration. So a lot of elites have made doomsday claims about global warming destroying society and things like that, though the doomsday scenarios are statistically unlikely and statistically unlikely things don’t happen very much. But the likely and scientifically credible scenarios are plenty worrisome enough. And to the extent that the media has been pushing doomsday on this, one of my worries is that the press corps has totally shot its credibility in a classic crying wolf exercise all through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The big deal press corps—The New York Times, everybody—has repeatedly demonstrated total incomprehension of the relative risks of environmental issues. We’ve heard an awful lot about arsenic in drinking water and electromagnetic emissions from power lines and things that even in the worst case analysis are really marginal threats and affect only very small numbers of people and only very slightly raise risks. Since the press corps—and the worst is The New York Times—constantly demonstrates that they have no sense of relative proportion in what are serious risks and what are minor risks, well, now they’re saying, “OK, now there’s proof of global warming.” They’re right, but Americans aren’t paying attention. They’ve cried wolf so many times when there was no wolf that now, when there is a wolf, no one believes them.

So maybe alarmism like Al Gore’s is useful.

From the archives:

"Some Convenient Truths" (September 2006)
Runaway global warming looks all but unstoppable. Maybe that's because we haven't really tried to stop it. By Gregg Easterbrook

No, I think it backfires. If the problem is that we’ve had too much alarmism, the solution is not more alarmism. I think the solution in terms of getting the public interested is optimism on this issue. And I really wish any one of the major presidential candidates of either party would embrace the optimistic view. The optimistic view of global warming is this: It’s a serious problem. It’s a threat to our civilization. However, we’ve overcome problems like this before—the solution to environmental problems in the past has consistently turned out to be cheaper than expected and has worked faster than expected. We’re Americans, we’re used to solving technical problems. This is a technical problem. If we just get to work on this issue we’re going to get faster results than anybody expects and it’s going to cost less than people expect. That’s the optimistic interpretation of the issue and I’m waiting for the presidential candidate that would embrace that set of views.

The NFL says that the Super Bowl, which you recently attended as a columnist for, is now carbon-neutral. Did you notice?

There were no obvious emissions from the cheerleaders’ outfits, if that’s what you mean. We’re talking two and half weeks after the Super Bowl and I’m just getting over my Super Bowl cold from sitting in the rain for four hours. And of course sitting in the rain for four hours had no effect whatsoever on my 17-year-old son. But anyway, entrepreneurs are selling this carbon neutral concept and I just don’t have any way of knowing whether it’s true or not. There are companies now where if you’re worried about your carbon lifestyle you can go online and buy carbon credits that claim to reduce greenhouse emissions elsewhere and I simply don’t have anyway of judging whether that happened or didn’t happen. As for the Super Bowl, an awful lot of cars and planes and helicopters came, and the Thunderbirds, all six of them, shot overhead of the stadium just before kickoff with their afterburners on and there must have been a lot of carbon emissions associated with that.

I’d like to read you a quote. “Oh, so Mother Nature needs a favor? Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys. Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she’s losing. Well I say, hard cheese.” That’s from Montgomery Burns, on The Simpsons. I’m inclined to agree with him: don’t you think it’s about time Mother Nature got a taste of her own medicine?

Well, it’s a common fallacy in modern thought to romanticize the natural condition as one that’s benign and blissful. My 1994 book, A Moment on the Earth, has a couple of chapters on the fallacies of our romanticization of nature. Nature is physically beautiful. There are a lot of glorious places in the world that are wonderful to hike and just stand in awe. But from our standpoint and our ancestors’ standpoint, nature is a killing machine that we’ve spent thousands of years trying to defeat. Especially disease, which kills far more human beings than war and violence combined. But not just disease—natural disasters also have killed far more human beings than war and violence combined ever have. We’ve seen them recently in the Indonesian tsunami, but also all kinds of other natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions et cetera, and climate change itself—which wiped out most of the life on earth at the beginning of the most recent ice age.

From the archives:

"The Return of the Grizzly" (September 2000)
Parts of the West are braced for a second coming. By David Whitman

Nature is pretty deadly. And it’s completely ruthless about protecting itself. You may not like it, but what’s the standard behavior of animals in the natural condition? It’s kill or be killed. And animals kill each other completely ruthlessly without the slightest hesitation. People argue now about whether grizzly bears should be protected, even though grizzly bears are one of the few creatures that will attack a human being. I will tell you that nature would not hesitate for one second to pull the trigger on the hunting rifle and kill the grizzly bear. Mother Nature would consider it absurd that we debate whether we should do this. But, even if nature is dangerous to us, the found natural world is also the place of our existence. And the current climate of the earth is mainly favorable to the human enterprise. Why should we roll the dice with the climate when today the climate mainly favors us?