Friday, January 14, 2011

Ckimate adaptation might not save us.

I have been a bit frustrated by the fact that one of the blogger that I follow does not allow comments. I am referring to Dr. Matthew E. Kahn, UCLA Economics professor who writes Environmental and Urban Economics from which he occasionally reminds us that he has a recently published book entitled Climatopolis.

You don't have to read the book to get a few of Kahn's basic points, especially his belief that market economics will provide the mechanism by which society will adapt to a changing warming climate. That is made clear in all of the promotions for Climatopolis.

There are two basic assumption here:
  • that there is time to start mitigating the effects of climate change after the reality become so clear that even hard core deniers like Alan Watts will be crying about missed opportunities to do something if only the scientists had been more clear.
  • that there will be both time enough and financing enough to accomplish what needs to be done to protect our economy and our way of life.
Neither of these are shown to be true. I am not an economist and I have not read Kahn's Climatopolis (though I did request my local library to purchase a copy… sharing is green.) However, I do read a lot and have two observations.

The first is that most climate models have been wrong in their predicted rate of climate change. It has been happening much more quickly than even Hansen predicted. This, along with the fact that scientists have been loath to connect extreme weather events to climate change, has led many to an overly optimistic view of the future. It may be fortunate that we have had so many extreme weather events this year, especially flooding, that the scientists can now make the point that the frequency of these events is the result of man caused climate change.

My second observation is the fact that almost every government is strapped for cash and does not have the ability to invest in the huge infrastructure projects required to meet the demands of a significant relocation of population such as Kahn talks about in Climatopolis. The money just isn't there and the private sector, ever concerned with long term investments in non-profit making activities, isn't going to do it on their own.

In today's post, Kahn chides a group of climate hawks for their pessimism over future events.  He selected a list of regular commenters from Joe Romm's Climate Progress.  That choice may or may not have been motivated by Romm's negative critiques of Climatopolis.  Kahn even views their pessimism through his optimistic lens of the wisdom of the market.
They know that we are on a doom path but if they know it, then others know it and the anticipation of potential doom creates opportunities for innovators.
Such innovation, on the massive scale required takes both time and capital, neither of which can be supplied in the quantity required. Kahn clearly understands what is going to happen. He links to one of his own OpEds where he lays out the social / economic consequences of our changing climate.
Cities in the developing world will face additional challenges in coping with climate change. Over the next 100 years, the major growth in urbanisation will take place in the developing world. Climate change is likely to accelerate this urbanisation as many farmers find that the profitability of continuing to farm has declined due to changes in climate. As these new urbanites move to cities, local wages will decline and local rents will increase. These general equilibrium effects mean that incumbent urban poor will suffer from such urban migration. The local urban politicians are unlikely to have strong incentives to scale up the infrastructure to provide for the new migrants. Those cities that offer rural migrants a high quality of life are likely to attract even more of such migrants. A type of tragedy of the commons will emerge.
I completely fail to understand how he maintains such a faith in the efficacy of free market capitalism to motivate doing the right thing for long term survival. Long term is not generally rewarded and risks are not normally considered without great reward. Did we not just go through this with the Great Recession?

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