Yale’s Paul Sabin revisits the Ehrlich vs. Simon bet on limits to growth. His nuanced piece makes many reasonable points. Towards the end of his piece he says some things that I strongly disagree with. I know that the readers of this blog will agree with him, so let’s have some fun. Here is a direct quote which I will “deconstruct” after the fold;
“Mr. Simon liked to argue that new problems prompt solutions that ultimately leave people better off than before. But we cannot surmount our challenges if we simply deny that they exist.
Instead of using science as a resource for human betterment, conservatives who reject the evidence of human-caused global warming prevent the very creative problem-solving that Mr. Simon advocated. And if environmentalists like Mr. Ehrlich hadn’t urged action back in the 1970s, would all that creativity have been channeled into the cleaner air and water that we enjoy today?
We face choices about our future direction. As Mr. Ehrlich and many other environmental scientists have documented, by pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we put things we value and love in danger, from the coral reefs to the Jersey Shore, from homes threatened by wildfire to farms endangered by drought.
And even if Mr. Simon is right that humans can adapt and prosper on this rapidly changing planet, we have to ask ourselves whether the risks and inequalities of this change are desirable.”
With regards to his quote; “if we simply deny” —- who is this “we”? If 70% of the population acknowledges the challenge of climate change while 30% do not then this may cause political challenges in agreeing to national carbon policy but this doesn’t hinder the free market from searching for adaptation solutions. In fact, the 70% of potential green entrepreneurs may work even harder to find solutions for climate adaptation because they recognize that the 30% have not adjusted their lifestyle to prepare and thus will be desperate and willing to pay for solutions. Simon says that there are 7 billion people on the planet. If 5% of then are solid entrepreneurs then they will work to discover many adaptation ideas. This is part of the reason that he was a fan of population growth because it gives us a higher chance of creating another Einstein.
In the second paragraph above, Sabin is playing the easy “collective action” point of “why are the crazy conservatives blocking the carbon tax? Don’t they know that the Clean Air Act cleaned the air?” This is a crowd pleasing point that is already known. The better economic point here is to ask what is optimal regulation? Has the Clean Air Act increased air quality too much relative to the marginal costs (middle class lost factory jobs) it imposed? Sabin needs to think about the marginal benefits and marginal costs of the intensity of regulation not that regulation is a (0,1) variable.
Sabin is correct in his third paragraph about the damage that climate change poses to some spatial assets such as coral reefs and the Jersey Shore. These are at risk due to climate change. But, do “we” love them or does a subset of the population love these assets? How much do they value them?
In his final point, Sabin worries about the poor and their ability to adapt. This is a serious challenge but this point is a pinch politically correct. A smarter point for a Yale man writing for the New York Times would be to ask how the world’s count of poor people will evolve over the next 30 years. Can we grow rich enough so that individuals in the year 2040 can protect themselves? Will the price of quality adjusted air conditioning and flood proof homes decline enough so that all of the world’s population can afford them? Will capitalism protect us from what we have unleashed? Sabin wants a risk free life (was he an untenured prof at Yale?). Unfortunately, that world does not exist. We have created substantial global risk by releasing too much carbon.
Fortunately, many subtle people recognize this and this fact helps to unleash capitalism to find the solutions to the challenge we have created. As I argued in my 2010 Climatopolis book and in my new 2013 environmental economics textbook, urbanization and innovation and migration and competition will allow us to meet the challenge. I respect Ehrlich’s Paul Revere gusto. We are not the Titanic because forward looking scholars such as Ehrlich have alerted us to the challenges we will face. Future challenges = opportunity and some of the next generation will rise up and create new solutions and this is how we collectively adapt. Not through collective action but instead through individual pursuit of opportunity. This is why I embrace Simon.