Brookings Winds Up Doomsday Clock

The Brookings Institution is the most establishment of establishment think-tanks. Old-fashioned, genteel, liberal, they do a lot of good work while at the same time perpetuating a lot of ideas whose time passed long ago. I would never, however, have called them alarmist. Until today, that is, when its President put his name to an op/ed in the Washington Post that is laughable in its alarmism. Drawing from the language of the 1980s doomsayers and their Doomsday Clock, the op/ed is entitled “7 Years to Climate Midnight.”

Here’s a sample:

Reflecting a consensus of hundreds of scientists around the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has affirmed that greenhouse gas emissions are raising the Earth’s temperature. The Earth is on a trajectory to warm more than 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit by around mid-century. Exceeding that threshold could trigger a series of phenomena: Arable land will turn into desert, higher sea levels will flood coastal areas, and changes in the convection of the oceans will alter currents, such as the Gulf Stream, that determine regional weather patterns.

Manhattan and Florida would be under water, while Nevada would have no water at all. Some Russians quip that they would welcome a more temperate climate, but they would probably be sorry to lose St. Petersburg. Countries such as Bangladesh and Mali do not have the resources to mitigate or even to adapt to the impact of climate change; millions would flee coastal flooding and the desertification of farmlands, creating instant “climate refugees.”

Note the coulds and woulds. Yep, anything could happen. However, read the IPCC – which they have just recommended – Working Group II report on impacts and you won’t find anything about Manhattan and Florida being under water (except in the “centuries to millennia” scale). That’s because the IPCC sees the most likely accelerated sea-level rise scenario this century, assuming temperatures go the way they project they will, is only “up to” 0.6m, about 2 feet (see here).

The rest of the story is the same, as the Boys from Brookings accentuate the negative. The fact is that when it comes to human welfare, a richer-but-warmer world is better off than a poorer-but-cooler one. A rich, warm world will actually see a significantly reduced number of people at risk of hunger, down from 15% of the population toady to as low as 1%. Bangladesh and Mali do indeed not currently have the resources to adapt, that is for sure, but by the end of the century in a warmer world the average per capita income in developing countries will have shot up from $875 (in 1990 dollars) to at least $11,000 – about the same as the developed world now – and possibly far more. Sea defenses are surprisingly effective once built (look at the Netherlands) and avert massive humanitarian and environmental costs. The world should be investing in them now, but based on sober, local assessments of the risks at individual locations, not on the basis of global alarmism.

Anyway, what do they recommend?

Urgent and drastic action by the international community is required, and the United States must take the lead.

Americans produce more than four times as much carbon per capita as the Chinese; 12 times as much as Indians; and more than twice as much as citizens of Germany, France, Britain and Japan. Unless the United States acts first, it will have no credibility in persuading other countries to do their share.

Hold on there, bucko. Per capita ranking is all very well, but the fact is that there are a billion Chinese and a billion Indians. China actually emits more in total than us. Third and fourth on the list are Indonesia and India. The developing world is where the emissions are increasingly coming from. Why? because it helps make them rich. America putting on a hair shirt is going to do nothing to stop that process. Now, there is something called the Environmental Kuznets Curve, which suggests that the environment becomes more important in political decision-making as societies become richer, but that doesn’t appear to be affected by example. The best we can do is not to hope that the developing world will stop going up the curve, but that we can help them over the top and down the other side faster. That involves technology sharing and transfer, which is a whole different kind of leadership than what Talbott and Pascual are suggesting.

Let’s go on. Here’s their preferred solution:

To their credit, McCain and Obama support the creation of a cap-and-trade system that would limit national emissions. Trading among firms would put a price on carbon. That is an essential step toward changing industry behavior, encouraging energy conservation and providing an incentive for new technologies. As the most powerful national economy, the United States can set an example for the world in harnessing wind and solar power; “sequestering” (or capturing) carbon from coal plants; and developing cellulosic ethanol and safe civilian nuclear power as alternatives to fossil fuels.

But the domestic obstacles to these and other measures are daunting. While some industries will prosper, other sectors of the economy, especially those that produce or rely on coal, steel and cement, will contract. Electricity prices will increase in the near and middle terms. Many workers and households will need help with the costs of transition.

Cap and Trade, eh? Beloved by Wall Street, politicians and Enron, hated by economists, free-marketers and environmentalists alike. The reason the financiers love it is because they can make a killing selling permits, and the perverse incentives it produces should give anyone pause. Politicians, however, love it precisely because of those “daunting obstacles” – it will increase energy prices to the average consumer (ie “voter”), but does so without an obvious tax voters will blame politicians for, while keeping large-donating energy companies happy. That’s precisely what happened in Europe. Oh, and no real emissions reduction either. Interestingly, CEI predicted all this back in 2001. If cap and trade is the answer, you’re not asking the right question.

At least they admit that their policy will induce hardship, but this should be their clue that they need to think laterally. The fact is that Brookings are stuck in the old rut of arguing for emissions reduction by inflicting restriction and hardship, instead of asking how you can get emissions reductions while increasing welfare. That’s where “no regrets” policies focused on increasing innovation and removing governmental barriers and limits are the way forward. My paper on ten such policies is almost ready. You’ll be the first to see it here when it comes out.

Anyway, Brookings has resorted to what science communications expert Matthew Nisbet (not someone likely to agree with me on the details) terms as framing global warming as a ‘Pandora’s Box,’ with all sorts of calamities ready to emerge. Yet evidence suggests it doesn’t work. Brookings’ entry into the debate merely advances harmful policies in an ineffective way. They really should know better.

Cross-posted from The Really Inconvenient Blog.