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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Thomas Schelling on Climate Change

Mark Thoma at Economist’s View presents and comments on the following article in The Atlantic which looks at global warming from a rather different perspective than the more common ones. 

Thomas Schelling on Climate Change

Thomas SchellingConor Clarke interviews Thomas Schelling on the implementation of climate change policy (the excerpts run across several questions):

An Interview With Thomas Schelling, Part Two, by Conor Clarke: 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…

…It’s not obvious that averting global climate change is in the rational self-interest of anyone … alive today. The serious consequences probably won’t occur until 2080 or 2100 or thereafter…, [and] 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 … 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 … that will create a huge multiplier effect, and it could become very serious. …

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. … 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 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. …

[I]f the developed countries … are really serious, they’ll tell India and China and Brazil, "we’re going to provide enormous assistance to help reduce your dependence on fossil fuels. And we don’t expect you to pay for it yourselves. We will pay for it because we’re rich and you’re not." …

But while people talk about this…, nobody that I know of is thinking about how in the world you organize so that the rich countries can agree what you do with the poor. You need to know who divides the money, and who the monitors is. We’re going to need a whole new set of institutions…

It’s very hard to get Americans to engage in what they think will be suffering not just for the polar bears but for the poor around the world who will indeed suffer if they can’t outgrow their vulnerability to climate change. …

I think you have to realize that most people have very strong moral feelings. I think in a lot of cases they’re misdirected. I wish moral feelings about a two-month old fetus were attached to hungry children in Africa. But I think people have very strong moral feelings. In fact, I’m always amazed by the number of people who at least pretend they’re worried about the polar bears.

And one thing that I think ought to help but doesn’t is that — and my impression is that maybe this is slightly changing — the organized churches in America don’t take seriously preserving the heritage that God gave us. … I get no impression that Protestants and Catholics are sermonizing on the importance of preserving the bounty of the earth, the richness of the species, or preserving the planet as we would like to know it. … I think the churches don’t realize that they could have a potent effect in not letting so much of gods legacy — in terms of flora and fauna — be destroyed by climate change.

But I tend to be rather pessimistic. I sometimes wish that we could have, over the next five or ten years, a lot of horrid things happening — you know, like tornadoes in the Midwest and so forth — that would get people very concerned about climate change. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Exaggerating the threat won’t help. When people find out that you are doing that — and they will at some point — you lose credibility and end up further behind than when you started. Also, though this is a bit picky — this qualification is often omitted to simplify the discussion — the costs are not fully captured by the loss of GDP. If, for example, some species become extinct due to climate change, that is only included in the costs to the extent that it lowers the output of goods and services. But our concerns are broader than that. Finally, I don’t think we should, even just sometimes, wish that horrid things would happen to people no matter how much good might come of it. There are better ways to get there.


Thomas Schelling is an Nobel Prize-winning economist.  He is a professor of foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy, and arms control at the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland, College Park. He is also co-faculty at the New England Complex Systems Institute. He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Robert Aumann) for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis."

Photo:  Thomas Schelling, by Hessam Armandehi, photo and license at Wikipedia. 


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