Article quote: the entire ice sheet is doomed, which would release enough meltwater to raise sea levels by more than 3 meters.
The economics of what we should do about climate change can be rather interestingly different from what we’re urged to do by the scientists and environmentalists. This is no doubt the effect of some character or moral flaw in economists but it is true that we can come up with some remarkably different policy prescriptions from exactly the same evidence. Take, for example, the reports out today that the glaciers of West Antarctica are melting, have passed the point of no return, and thus that sea levels are going to rise some several feet over the next few centuries (yes, we are talking about centuries here, no one at all outside Greenpeace and the like is trying to say that Manhattan will be underwater by Tuesday noon next).
We can all imagine, heck, wait a few hours and we won’t have to imagine it, the cries from scientists and environmentalists shouting that this really proves that we’ve got to pull our fingers out and really solve this climate change problem. The economists’ answer is that this just proves that we need to do less about trying to avert climate change. As I say, a very different policy answer from the very same (and for our purposes here, entirely undisputed) facts.
Four feet isn’t going to produce those Nevada beachside condos but it’s also probably something that we’d prefer not to happen. So we can understand those calling for a large and immediate reduction in carbon emissions and so on. Can’t we?
Except an economist is going to look at that past “the point of no return”. That is, again without contesting the water level rise resulting, that this is all about sunk costs. Whatever it was that we needed to do to cause this sea level rise (you can even call it a calamity or a disaster if you wish) we have already done. It doesn’t matter what we do in the future because, given that it’s past that point of no return, whatever we do do won’t make it not happen. That’s what that point of no return phrase actually means.
So, given that it’s going to happen whatever we do what effort should we be expending to try and stop it happening, what should we be doing? The answers to those two questions being none and nothing. If it’s going to happen anyway then we shouldn’t waste resources in trying to stop it happening.
Now, if the original claim was that without immediate and stringent action then it might happen then perhaps more action might be logically supportable. But given that the claim is actually that whatever we do it’s going to happen then the correct decision is simply to shrug our shoulders and go invest in some sandbags to keep back the floods. For however much we impoverish ourselves by killing off industrial society, or by razing all the coal fired stations to build more expensive solar installations, that flooding is going to happen anyway. So, why make ourselves poorer in order to change nothing?
As I say, the policy prescriptions you can get from these descriptions of climate change can change quite alarmingly depending upon whether you view them through the lens of economics or not. If it’s inevitable that past emissions will raise sea levels four feet then there’s no point at all in limiting current emissions to prevent that four foot rise. We might as well face the floods being as rich, fat and happy as we can, without wasting resources on trying to prevent something inevitable.
It is only if continuing emissions are going to lead to something more, something else possibly worse, happening that there’s any economic case at all for limiting them. As it happens I think that there are worse things that might happen and that there is a very good case indeed for limiting future emissions. But this finding, that West Antarctica is going to melt no matter what just isn’t a valid reason to limit future emissions. The damage is already done, see?
If it gets to hot, we might work on better relations with Canada.