“Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet”
By Gernot Wagnet, Martin L. Weitzman
Princeton University Press, 264pp | Buy on Amazon
If there was a one in ten chance your house caught on fire, would you take insurance? If there was even a slight 1% chance a large asteroid hitting Earth, killing all life on planet in the process, would you fund a deflection program? Incidentally, 10% is the IPCC’s estimated risk for the planet heating by 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which would not kill life on Earth, but would likely end human civilization as we know it. In their book, Wagner and Weitzman use this line of reasoning to approach the risks of climate change the same way we think about insurance – as a risk management problem, but on a global scale.
Climate change is the most complex and difficult challenge humanity faces in history, because of four factors as outlined by Wagnet and Weitzman: it’s uniquely global, long-term, irreversible, uncertain. The most challenging part is that’s uncertain. “What we know about climate change is bad, what we don’t know is worse,” the authors assert. It’s this massive uncertainty, in fact, that should alarm us and gear us towards action. Instead, this uncertainty is (often malevolently) used as an argument by climate skeptics not to react at all, since in their view humans aren’t affecting the global climate in anyway, or so minimally that it doesn’t make a difference. This is obviously wrong. Global warming is a certainty. That this will cause significant economic damage is also a certainty. What’s uncertain is how bad all of this will be.
The title and the cover’s bright red coloring might falsely lend us to believe this is an alarmist book. Far from it, it’s more like a sobering wake-up call. Moreover, we’re handed out the best solution to our dilemma – all backed up by a hundred pages or so of notes and links to documents – early on, from page 23: putting a tax on carbon. The US government estimates a fair cost per one ton of carbon at $40, but right now it’s doing the opposite: it’s basically paying to pollute by subsidizing fossil fuel. The true cost of carbon (rising sea levels, fatalities and bad health, ecosystem instability, extreme weather etc) might be far greater than this.
The authors also approach technological quick fixes like geoengineering as a central theme of their book. Geoengineering involves mimicking the cooling effects we generally see following a volcanic activity by essentially spraying light reflecting chemicals into the stratosphere, like sulfur compounds. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1992, it spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and cooled the whole planet by 0.5 degrees Celsius. After two years, surface temperatures kicked back right up.
Humanity’s greatest challenges have always been solved by our prodigious son: technology. In the 1800s, the manure crisis threatened urban sanitation with a disaster. The Times of London estimated in 1894 that the situation was so dire that in 50 years every street in the city would be buried 9ft deep in horse droppings. The solution was the advent of the internal combustion engine, which eventually brought automobiles to replace horse buggies. Today, it’s not 9ft of manure that’s a threat, but 9ft of water. In the face of a much dire crisis, should we also this time wait for technology to save us? This is where renewable tech like solar cell, wind turbines or fuel cells come in. These are in fact a viable solution, but they’re so expensive to implement on a global scale that progress is excruciatingly slow. This is why geoengineering is so appealing, but Wagner and Weitzman disagree because it involves treating the symptoms only. Spewing sulfur into the atmosphere will cool the planet, but won’t expel any CO2 into space. There will still be ocean acidification, smog, ozone depletion and so on and once we set on geoengineering our planet, we’ll likely get hooked and never turn back. In many ways, geoengieering is even more uncertain in its consequences than climate change itself. Definitely far from being a solution, and even the foremost experts on geoengineering agree that it shouldn’t be done – only in extreme conditions, like when there isn’t any other choice.
In the end, we all need to accept an inconvenient truth: emissions need to come down to zero, if we’re to avert a catastrophe, economic and otherwise. The only viable solution is taxing carbon, and funneling that money into renewable resources. In my mind, this book should be required reader for any policy maker. The world might actually make some real progress, then.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.