Economics is "the dismal science," in part because it puts a price tag on the pleasure of moralizing. This is pertinent to the crusade, often masquerading as journalism, aimed at hectoring developed nations into taking "strong" actions against global warming. For such nations (developing nations have more pressing priorities), the question, plainly put, is: How much are they willing to pay—in direct expenditures, forgone economic growth, inefficiencies and constricted freedom—in order to have a negligible effect on climate change?
Zealots say fighting global warming is a moral imperative, so cost-benefit analyses are immoral. Like our Manichaean president, they have a simple fixation: Are you with us or not? But in his book "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming," the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg suggests that global warming, although real, is not apt to be severe; that many of its consequences will be beneficial, and that the exorbitant costs of attempting to substantially curtail it would squander resources that, put to other uses, could have effects thousands of times more ameliorative. He offers cautionary calculations:
The warming that is reasonably projected might be problematic, although not devastating, for the much-fretted-about polar bears, but it will be beneficial for other species. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment anticipates increasing species richness.
Global warming was blamed for 35,000 deaths in Europe's August 2003 heat wave. Cold, however, has caused 25,000 deaths a year recently in England and Wales—47,000 in each winter from 1998 to 2000. In Europe, cold kills more than seven times as many as heat does. Worldwide, moderate warming will, on balance, save more lives than it will cost—by a 9-to-1 ratio in China and India. So, if substantially cutting carbon dioxide reverses warming, that will mean a large net loss of life globally.
How cool do we want the world to be? As cool as it was when the Arctic ice pack extended so far south that Eskimos in kayaks landed in Scotland? Just cool enough to prevent the oceans from inundating us?
The U.N.'s 2007 report estimates that by 2100, sea levels will rise about a foot—as much as they have risen since 1860. That will mean a number of local problems, not a planetary crisis. More people now live near coasts (which is why hurricanes have become more costly; they have not become more frequent or violent), but protecting people and property from the sea would be far less costly than attempting to turn down the planet's thermostat.
In an example of what has been called titillating "climate porn," we have been warned that warming might make malaria endemic in Vermont. Well. Malaria kills more than a million people a year worldwide and was endemic in parts of America's South within living memory (which is why the Centers for Disease Control are in Atlanta). But Lomborg says malaria is "related strongly to economic development and weakly to changing climate." Increasing prosperity and low-tech methods like mosquito nets, not controlling climate change, is the key to preventing 85 million malaria deaths by 2100.
Warming will help agriculture in some regions and hurt it in others, but even a net negative effect will be less injurious than current agriculture policies are. The farm bill currently taking odious shape in Congress will be a killer—literally. Rich countries subsidizing their agriculture limit the ability of poor countries to prosper—and become healthier—by selling their products in rich countries' markets.
Recent loopiness about warming has ranged from the idiotic (an academic study that "associated" warming with increased Italian suicide rates) to the comic (London demonstrators chanting, "What do we want? Carbon taxes! When do we want them? Now!"). Well, you want dramatic effects now? We can eliminate what the World Health Organization says will be, by 2020, second only to heart disease as the world's leading cause of death.
The cause is traffic accidents. The surefire cure is speed limits of 5mph. In 2008 alone, that would save 1.2 million lives and $500 billion in damages, disproportionately in the Third World, which will be hardest hit by increasing traffic carnage. But a world moving at 5mph would be, over the years, uncountable trillions of dollars poorer, which would cost some huge multiple of 1.2 million lives through forgone nutrition, education, infrastructure—e.g., clean water—medicine, research, etc.
The costs of such global slowing would be the medievalization of the world, so the world accepts the costs of velocity. There also are high costs of what Lomborg calls "impossibly ambitious and yet environmentally inconsequential" plans for inventing a "big knob of climate change" that we can give a twist or two, thereby making the climate "better" and making nothing worse.
Sums that are small relative to the cost of trying to fine-tune the planet's climate could prevent scores of millions of deaths from AIDS, unsafe drinking water and other clear and present dangers. If nations concert to impose antiwarming measures commensurate with the hyperbole about the danger, the damage to global economic growth could cause in this century more preventable death and suffering than was caused in the last century by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot combined. Nobel Peace Prize, indeed.