Great New Series on Drought in America

The United States is experiencing its worst drought in half a century, with serious and far-reaching implications for everything from food supplies to electricity production, biofuels to property values. In an effort to raise awareness of the connection between climate change and severe drought,  the Union of Concerned Scientists has started a series of blog posts that explore the science as well as the impacts on agriculture, economics, energy, and the strain on water resources.

The first three posts in the series, can be found here:

The Enormous Costs of the 2012 Drought to American Farmers and Taxpayers, Rachel Cleetus, senior climate economist

Drought Double Whammy:  As the World Warms, U.S. Droughts Likely to be Hotter, More Damaging, Brenda Ekwurzel, climate scientist and assistant director of climate research and analysis

2012 U.S. Drought and Heat Expose Electricity Supply Risks, Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior analyst

There will be a total of about 10 posts over the next three weeks. You can subscribe to 2012 Drought in America blog feed to receive notification when the next post is published.


The Caribbean and Climate Change: Not in the Same Boat

Elizabeth A. Stanton with Ramon Bueno.  Orginally posted on the Climate & Development and Knowledge Network Blog.

Greenhouse gas emissions are a global problem. Regardless of who emits them, these gases impact everyone, everywhere around the world: raising average temperatures and sea levels, and changing historical weather patterns. But climate change will not affect everyone equally. The two dozen island nations of the Caribbean are a case in point. With 40 million people living on islands in a small geographic area, it would be easy – but incorrect – to expect that they will all face the same climate damages. In fact, according to new research from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Caribbean residents are not all “in the same boat” and should expect to face a very wide diversity of climate impacts.

Yes, each person living in the Caribbean will experience about the same change in climate – temperature increase and shift in weather patterns – and degree of sea-level rise as her neighbors over the next decades. And her children and grandchildren can expect about the same changes to weather and sea levels as their neighbors. But these changes in the physical world will not impact all Caribbean residents in the same way.

SEI’s new Climate Impact Equity Lens (SEI-CIEL, see for more information) examines the diverse impacts of climate change by zooming in on four important types of diversity that affect individuals’ expected impacts from climate change: family income; share of income from economic sectors that are especially vulnerable to damages from climate change; exposure to sea-level rise and storm surge; and present-day water availability.

Family income plays an important role in who will be vulnerable to damages and who can afford to adapt as the climate changes. The Caribbean islands include the countries with the highest and lowest average incomes in the greater Latin American and Caribbean region: in Haiti, the average person makes less than US$500 a year (but, of course, some people make a lot more than $500 and some people make a lot less); in the Cayman islands, the average income is $52,000. The Caribbean islands account for less than 1 percent of global population, but Caribbean incomes span the same diversity as world incomes: from the very poorest to the very richest. Families making a few hundred U.S. dollars each year can scarcely afford basic living expenses much less investments in air conditioning, sea walls, or imported water. The richest families, in contrast, can afford these investments and much more; it seems unlikely that the very rich will experience much real suffering from climate change.

The diversity of climate impacts is also affected by the source of income. For those that work in agriculture, fisheries, tourism, or other sectors or industries especially vulnerable to climate change, expected damages are much higher. Tourism, for example, contributes about half of all income in Aruba, Netherlands Antilles, Saint Lucia, and Turks and Caicos, and far more than half of all income for many households throughout the Caribbean.

Physical vulnerabilities like exposure to sea-level rise and water scarcity also vary throughout the region. Some families live close to the shoreline, at low elevations, or in floodplains, but many others – especially on the largest islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) – are well protected from the first several meters of sea-level rise. On most Caribbean islands, fresh water is a scarce resource, but on a few islands water resources are more abundant. Climate change is expected to make many of the most arid areas around the world even drier; where present-day water scarcity is severe, families are more vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

The SEI-CIEL model finds that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue, climate damages for the average person in Latin America and the Caribbean would equal “savings” from not paying to reduce emissions through about 2100. (If emissions are not controlled, we all “save” by paying lower energy costs.) This average does not, however, represent the diversity of individual impacts from climate change expected in the Caribbean, where damages for many individuals will outstrip “savings” by 2050, and by 2100, most people experience net damages.

If policy makers pay attention only to the average regional result, their conclusions about the urgency of climate change would be very different than if they consider the diversity of individual impacts. Many people, in the Caribbean and around the world, will experience serious net damages from climate change by 2050. Those who care about the well-being of the most vulnerable will press climate policy makers to slow emissions as quickly as possible.


What’s New in Climate Economics

Economic analysis has become increasingly central to the climate policy debate, but the models and assumptions of climate economics often lag far behind the latest developments in this fast-moving field. That’s why Elizabeth Stanton and I have written Climate Economics: The State of the Art, an in-depth review of new developments in climate economics and science since the Stern Review (2006) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007), with more than 500 citations to the recent research literature.

We begin with a survey of climate science that is potentially relevant to economic analysis, including uncertainties in climate dynamics, the role of black carbon, temperature thresholds for irreversible losses, a new understanding of climate impacts on agriculture, and projections that temperatures could remain near their historical peak for centuries or millennia after greenhouse gas concentrations start declining.

We then focus on innovations in the economic theory and analysis of climate change, including new approaches to uncertainty that build on Weitzman’s “dismal theorem,” which shows the marginal benefit of emission reduction can be infinite. We also cover new developments in the longstanding debate about discount rates and intergenerational economic analysis, and the problems of international equity, which are central to climate negotiations but barely visible in the economics literature. Continue reading…

What Switcheroo? A Response to Bruce Everett

In a recent blog post, Tufts University professor and former ExxonMobil executive Bruce Everett claims to have had hundreds of conversations with advocates of active climate protection over the last ten years. From these conversations he claims that they – an almost entirely unnamed group of “Climatistas”  –  make ever-changing, unsubstantiated arguments, and cannot answer his objections.

I’m not sure who his “Climatistas” are, or why they were struck dumb by his garden-variety climate-skeptic arguments. But here’s a quick response. I’ll try to resist the temptation to respond to his rhetoric in kind.

Substantively, there are eight paragraphs in his “Climate Change Switcheroo” commentary that argue against the “Climatistas.” Here are his eight main points, with my responses. Continue reading…

Facing Up to the Real Cost of Carbon

This post by Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth A. Stanton is cross-posted on Triple Crisis.

Your house might not burn down next year. So you could probably save money by cancelling your fire insurance.

That’s a “bargain” that few homeowners would accept.

But it’s the same deal that politicians have accepted for us, when it comes to insurance against climate change. They have rejected sensible investments in efficiency and clean energy, which would reduce carbon emissions, create green jobs, and jumpstart new technologies – because they are too expensive.

While your house might not burn down, your planet is starting to smolder. Extreme weather events are becoming more common, and more expensive: in the first half of 2011, Mississippi River floods cost us between $2 and $4 billion, while the ongoing Texas drought has cost us between $1.5 and $3 billion, according to the National Climatic Data Center. And there’s much worse to come: climate-related extremes are already forcing millions of people from their homes worldwide; ice sheets and glaciers are melting much faster than expected; the latest research shows we are rapidly heading for summer temperatures at which crop yields in America will start to plummet. Continue reading…

Carbon Cost Recalculation Reveals True Value of Emissions Reduction

New research exposes flaws in government estimate of social cost of carbon.

The U.S. government’s estimate of the social cost of carbon – an estimate of the damage caused by each additional ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere – is fundamentally flawed and  understates the potential impacts of climate change, according to a new report released today by E3 Network.

The peer-reviewed report, Climate Risks and Carbon Prices: Revising the Social Cost of Carbon, authored by Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth A Stanton for E3 Network, finds that the true social cost of carbon is in fact more uncertain than the government’s $21 per ton estimate, a key policy-making factor in everything from power-plant regulations to car fuel-efficiency standards.

The entire range of new calculations arrived at in the report, reaching as high as $893 per ton in 2010 and $1550 in 2050, are all well above the government’s $21 estimate, bringing into question prior analyses of the benefits of reducing emissions and potentially current thinking on what policymakers will consider cost effective. Continue reading…

Climate Policy for Conservatives

Suppose you believe, as I do, in basic conservative principles (free enterprise and a market economy, limited government, and minimal change in established institutions that work well), but also acknowledge that anthropogenic climate change presents a sufficient danger that something needs to be done about it.  The risk is that even as little as 2° Celsius (about 3.6° Fahrenheit) of warming might push one of a number of different earth systems past a tipping point that is both catastrophic and irreversible.  In other words, the problem is one of risk management, in which prudence calls for taking action before it is too late to make a mid-course correction.  What would be a conservative response to this threat? 

It is unfortunate that the climate issue has been co-opted by liberals, because conservative policy prescriptions would not be the same as those that have been put forward by the Democrats and their allies among the environmental groups.  The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in 2010 (then died in the Senate) was a 1400-page monstrosity; it catered to special interests, placed undue burdens on people with low incomes, and had no connection to a coherent US international negotiating strategy on climate.  Just as misguided is the EPA’s intention to regulate CO2 as a pollutant by executive fiat – a scheme that also is inefficient, non-transparent, and regressive.  Virtually all economists would agree that either approach is inferior to a well-designed carbon tax or auctioned emissions permits, with revenues returned to citizens on a per capita basis or used to cut other taxes.   Continue reading…

Building the Economic Case for Climate Action

Economics for Equity and the Environment Network convened a recent meeting of economists at the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to discuss the role of economics in building support for climate action in the U.S.

The economists who convened view climate change as a civilizational challenge that demands immediate action to protect the quality of human life today and in the future. They recognize that conventional economic thinking has failed to envision a way through the climate crisis, but believe firmly that economics can and must provide critical skills and insights. These economists take as their starting points: Continue reading…

Costs of Inaction: Popular Climate Econ Model Needs Major Overhaul

Another in the series on the costs of inaction – what we’ll pay if climate change continues unabated.

True or false: Risks of a climate catastrophe can be ignored, even as temperatures rise? The economic impact of climate change is no greater than the increased cost of air conditioning in a warmer future? The ideal temperature for agriculture could be 17oC above historical levels?

All true, according to the increasingly popular FUND model of climate economics. It is one of three models used by the federal government’s Interagency Working Group to estimate the “social cost of carbon” – that is, the monetary value of the long-term damages done by greenhouse gas emissions. According to FUND, as used by the Working Group, the social cost of carbon is a mere $6 per ton of CO2. That translates into $0.06 per gallon of gasoline. Do you believe that a tax of $0.06 per gallon at the gas pump (and equivalent taxes on other fossil fuels) would solve the climate problem and pay for all future climate damages?

I didn’t believe it, either. But the FUND model is growing in acceptance as a standard for evaluation of climate economics. To explain the model’s apparent dismissal of potential harm, I undertook a study of the inner workings of FUND (with the help of an expert in the relevant software language) for E3 Network. Having looked under the hood, I’d say the model needs to be towed back to the shop for a major overhaul. Continue reading…

Costs of Inaction: Not Only a Problem For the Poor

This is another in a series of entries focused on the costs of inaction – what we will pay if climate change continues unchecked

In a recent article in Newsweek, Nobel laureate economist Thomas Schelling argues that one of the greatest obstacles to addressing climate change is persuading the non-poor in the developed world to take the problem seriously. As he states:

Estimates of lost world product due to climate change are moderate because the poor have so little to lose. More than a billion people, maybe 2 billion, are estimated to live on less than the equivalent of $2 per day. If a billion of those poorest people lost half their income, it would be an overwhelming tragedy, a true catastrophe, worse than all the earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, landslides, and fires of the past decade happening every year. But those billion people together would lose only $365 billion per year. That is less than 1 percent of world income! They have so little to begin with that what they can lose doesn’t amount to much of a statistic. But they can lose tragically. (Schelling, Newsweek)

Schelling’s quote is a telling example of why GDP is a flawed metric for communicating the risks of climate change. In a world characterized by gross income disparities, treating a dollar’s worth of impact in a poor country the same as a dollar’s worth of impact in a rich country is a surefire way to mask the real impacts of climate change. Yet, this is what almost all economic models of climate change do, and many economists think it is necessary to avoid value-laden comparisons. Attaching greater weight to impacts in poor countries would cause global estimates of the economic damages of climate change to rise substantially.  Continue reading…