Q&A: Our Fear Is Getting In the Way

The standard scare stories about global warming don't worry Robert Mendelsohn. For more than 10 years, the Yale economist has been studying the likely impact of climate change. Convinced that manmade change is underway, he's nevertheless skeptical of prescriptions that call for a drastic response. So far, he says, the changes to our weather have been modest and can be addressed over time with less costly measures. But moderate voices like his, according to Mendelsohn, are being drowned out by extremists. He talked to NEWSWEEK's William Underhill. Excerpts:

Underhill: You stress the importance of adapting to climate change over tackling its causes. Why?
Mendelsohn: Adaptation is very important because no matter what we do, some warming is going to occur. And the charming thing about adaptation by private entities is that they will do it for themselves. Farmers will switch to different crops because they will make more profits, households will adapt so as to be more comfortable. It is in their own interests.

But you can't leave it all to private entities.
Government has to coordinate. With rising sea levels, for example, it has to decide where do you allow flooding and which parts of the coastline really need protecting. The question is whether the government can make those decisions or whether they will be taken up by special interests.

If adaptation is really so important, why have we heard so little about it?
Initially there was a fear that if you talked too much about adaptation then people would lose interest in mitigating [the effects of climate change]. If you don't talk about adaptation, then you can tell the public tremendous scare stories that will motivate them. With adaptation, the scare stories are less vivid.

How do you rate Al Gore's contribution to the debate?
I like him more as a motivational speaker than I would as a president. He talks in very extreme terms.

Should we set a higher target for stabilizing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere than the EU or other experts recommend?
If you [do] you have more time before you have to spend vast amounts of money on abatement. And we need that time. At the moment, we are not ready for abatement: we don't have the technology and we don't have the international organization. If you take a higher target [for stabilizing CO2 levels] you have a 20- or 30-year window.

Do you see any sign of opinion swinging around to your way of thinking?
What many economists are pressing for is to start moderately and then get more strenuous over time. We would say that you can allow emissions to grow—just not as fast as they otherwise would. But what you get is either the Bush business-as-usual-approach [or the British government] warning of the end of the earth and calling for a crash program.

You've also talked about the importance of compensation. For whom?
Climate change is very unfair. The bulk of the impact will fall on the low-latitude countries—which are also the poorest. Most of the [big emitters] will be hardly touched. Those that will suffer have hardly anything to do with the emissions. We need to consider doing things that will help them to adapt, for example assisting them out of climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture. And I suspect that you could get the traditional development agencies like the World Bank involved. Frankly, it's for the good of the whole world.