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Two years to save the world

Fighting global warming would barely dent the world's economy

New Scientist

PEOPLE will be five times as rich in a hundred years' time. And if we are willing to postpone that prosperity by just two years, we could fix global warming into the bargain.

That's the startling conclusion of leading US climate scientist Stephen Schneider and Swedish energy economist Christian Azar, who are about to publish a bruising assault on the Bush administration's claims that international plans to curb climate change would cripple the US and world economies.

"The wild rhetoric about enslaving the poor and bankrupting the economy to do climate policy is fallacious, even if one accepts the conventional economic models," Schneider told New Scientist. He says the economic arguments need to be put in context, and called on climate scientists to take a tougher stand against the doom-mongers who say action would be too costly.

Schneider's assault comes a week after a further blow was dealt to the prospects that the Kyoto Protocol will come into force. Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced that his government would not ratify the protocol, claiming it would "cost jobs and damage our industry".

The Bush administration, and now apparently Howard, have taken their tone from leading environmental economists such as Yale's William Nordhaus, who has argued that "a vague premonition of some potential disaster is insufficient grounds to plunge the world into depression". But, says Schneider, over a century even the trillions of dollars thought necessary to halt global warming would be a blip compared with the economic advances predicted by the same experts.

Many climate scientists have become frustrated by what they regard as the dead hand of economic orthodoxy in academic analyses of the costs and benefits of action to halt global warming. But in a forthcoming issue of the journal Ecological Economics, Schneider and Azar tackle the economists head-on, taking their own numbers and putting a dramatic new spin on them.

Last year's report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included the economists' assessment that stabilising atmospheric carbon dioxide at twice pre-industrial concentrations by 2100 would cost between $1 trillion and $8 trillion. It sounds a lot, says Schneider, but the money would be all but invisible against the 2 per cent a year economic growth predicted by the same economists.

Without action to halt global warming, economists predict that the world as a whole will be 10 times as rich by 2100, and people on average will be five times as well off. Adding on the costs of tackling warming, says Schneider, would postpone this target by a mere two years. "To be 10 times richer in 2100 versus 2102 would hardly be noticed." Similarly, meeting the terms of the Kyoto Protocol would mean industrialised countries "get 20 per cent richer by June 2010 rather than in January 2010".

Put that way, he believes, the American public and politicians could be convinced that curbing greenhouse emissions is a necessary insurance policy against the potential dangers of climate change.


Author: Fred Pearce

New Scientist issue: 15 JUNE 2002


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