Art Carden  

Climate Stabilizers: How Do People Adjust?

The Economics of Christmas: An... Walter Oi, RIP...

I just read Ronald Bailey's article "Ugly Climate Models" to which co-blogger David Henderson linked below. From what I can gather, it looks like it's clear that the world is getting hotter and that human activity is contributing to it. Like David Friedman, I'm not convinced that it's going to be unambiguously bad.

I've been thinking over the last few days about ways in which people adjust to changes in climate and the like. As the climate warms, we might expect to see people reduce their demand for relatively resource-intensive warm clothing. Demand for heating oil will go down in exceptionally cold regions. The net effect on mortality will be ambiguous but likely positive: Indur Goklany argues that extreme cold kills far more people than extreme heat.

Norms will change. People are always coming up with new ways to solve problems, and with the global explosion in information technology I think we're just scratching the surface of what a truly global conversation will mean. In grad school, a friend told me his father's winter rule of thumb: if you're comfortable indoors without socks on, you have the heat on too high. Resources are needed to produce the socks, but I would be surprised if the net climate impact for extra socks is higher than the net climate impact of home heating.

As things get warmer, new types of vegetation will creep northward. Most of what I've seen has focused on bad flora and fauna, but again, this will be offset to at least some extent by the emergence of "good" flora and fauna. To use one example, we're doing an experiment with our kids in which we're going to learn why people don't grow avocados in central Alabama. We planted avocado pits, and they sprouted, but suffice it to say they don't do well in cold weather and will probably be dead before Spring. Changes in agricultural conditions will likely mean changes in the relative prices of meat and vegetable matter. Might climate change itself produce more climate-friendly diets?

I don't know. There are a lot of ways people will adjust to changing climate conditions. Some of them will be good, some of them will be bad, and in some ways ingenuity and markets mean that the system contains some of its own "automatic stabilizers" that will dampen the effects in either direction. I'll close with a quote from Friedman, who makes the most important (but most overlooked) point about the entire discussion in a post that is worth reading in its entirety (I'll even link to it again!):

The answer, I think, is that nobody knows if the net effects would be good or bad, and probably nobody can know. We are talking, after all, about effects across the world over a century. How accurately could somebody in 1900 have predicted what would matter to human life in 2000? What reason do we have to think we can do better?

Should we, for instance, assume that Bangladesh will still be a poor country a century hence, or that it will by then have followed the path blazed by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong--and so be in a position to dike its coast, as Holland did several centuries ago, or move housing some miles further inland, at a cost that can be paid out of petty change? Should we assume that population increase makes agricultural land more valuable and the expansion of the area over which crops can be grown more important, or that improvements in crop yield make it less? While there may be people who believe that they know the answer to such questions, the numbers required to justify such belief are at best educated guesses, in most cases closer to pure invention. Someone who wants to prove that global warming is bad can make high estimates for the costs, low estimates for the benefits, and so prove his case to his own satisfaction. Someone with the opposite agenda can reverse the process and prove his case equally well.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences

COMMENTS (11 to date)
TV writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

David R. Henderson writes:

@Art Carden,
You state, "it's clear that the world is getting hotter.” That’s not what I took from the article at all. For the last 15 years, the world has not gotten hotter. It did get hotter before that but the temperature has stabilized.

magilson writes:

Do you make bets with non-bloggers/authors/economists?

If so, my bet is $1000 cash. Let's square on which data set, how many degrees by which historical data will be "adjusted" lower, and future data excluded to favor certain stations over others. The "data" generated by models cannot be substituted for actual.

Climate is far less sensitive to CO2 than has been described to date. No reliable model in the history of climate modeling not withstanding; perhaps it's that some economists don't feel good about modeling complex systems that they can get past all the never being right about any of their predictions. Ever.

Let me know.

Many people express alarm about global warming. Why? Consider two possible reasons.

  1. The globe is actually warming and this could be a problem for some people.
  2. Government intervention may be forthcoming. If the alarm can be made convincing enough, then governments may enact presumably-good restrictions upon human industry: carbon taxes etc.
I believe that the second reason dominates. Warming or not, a broad class of "scientists" support more government interventions into the economy.

For evidence consider the statement of EU Climate Commissioner Hedegaard, “Let’s say that science, some decades from now, said: 'We were wrong, it was not about climate’, would it not in any case have been good to do many of the things you have to do in order to combat climate change?” (found near the end of this post).

Mark Bahner writes:

David Henderson responds to Art Carden: "You state, 'it's clear that the world is getting hotter.' That’s not what I took from the article at all. For the last 15 years, the world has not gotten hotter. It did get hotter before that but the temperature has stabilized."

The article inappropriately used 1998 as a starting year. Why did the article use that year? Well...could it be that 1998 was chosen because it was extraordinarily warm? If one is cherry-picking to show no warming, that's a great year to choose!

A much more appropriate way to look at things would be as 10-year (or even 20-year, or 30-year) rolling averages.

If one does that, the last 10 years, or the last 20 years, or the last 30 years, have globally been unambiguously warmer any similar period for the last 120+ years, and likely warmer than any similar period going back many hundreds of years (certainly back to the Medieval Warm Period of 950 to 1250), and possibly even thousands of years (if no similar period was warmer during the Medieval Warm Period).

magilson writes:


It's not at all inappropriate. For example, pick a year of your liking in the 70's or 80's. Now derive the slope of the temperature change using that starting year as a fixed point in comparison to every year of the 2000s and beyond. The slope steadily shrinks. Aha, an interesting trend within a trend. But using your overly simplistic "rolling average" such useful information is lost. This is exactly the opposite of understanding and a pointless excercise in uselessly simplistic math. Why is the trend shrinking? What reason? When can we see that new trend begin?

Looks like 1998. As you correctly point out that was a very strong El Nino/La Nina event. After that we see little (or to be factual, no) change in global temperatures. Interesting. Zero models predict that. More interesting, no models even got your rolling averages right within their own definition of "accurate" either.

I'm not personally saying CO2 has no warming effect. It does. I'm not saying it didn't warm during the twentieth century. It did. But CO2's warming effect has been demonstrably smaller than claimed. And current climate models have been demonstrably shown to encapsulate far, far too few variables to be anything but interesting water-cooler chatter.

I'm just saying given the level of hubris involved one should consider that the accuracy level thus far of the "climate" profession in no way warrants any more respect than my co-workers fantasy football team.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Bahner,
If one does that [uses rolling averages], the last 10 years, or the last 20 years, or the last 30 years, have globally been unambiguously warmer [than] any similar period for the last 120+ years,
Good point about cherry-picking 1998. I hadn’t known that. But of course the average temperature in the first decade of this century will be higher than the average temperature in the 1990s because of all the warming that happened in the 1990s. That doesn’t mean there’s warming. It means that in the past it warmed.

Harold Cockerill writes:

Can we all agree that the climate is going to change? It always has changed. It's always either gotten warmer or cooler and for vast stretches of time in the past it was downright frigid. To my mind warmer is better.

Regardless it seems the loudest voices are saying not only is it getting warmer but that the warming is a bad thing and that government needs to do something about it. This is when I fall on the floor in paroxysms of laughter. Our government is going to fix this? Has anyone been paying attention to what our government does?

Scott Scheule writes:

David R. Henderson:

With all respect, if you're not even aware of the 1998 cherry-picking tactic, you are utterly ignorant with regards to the global warming issue. There's nothing wrong with that--you're not a climatologist--but it is a reason to immediately stop blogging on the topic. At least until and if you engage in some study.

magilson writes:

Cherry-picking. That's rich.

Daublin writes:

To Art's excellent question, I would add a related question for a longer time period: what shall we do about the next ice age?

Controlling CO2 will have minimal effect on the ice ages, nor do we have any alternative plan for stopping ice ages. They are coming, and so we will have to learn to survive them or else dwindle.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top