Al Gore’s Nuanced Support for Climate Change Adaptation Efforts

Below the fold, I discuss Al Gore’s evolving views on climate change and where we agree and disagree about this important issue.

Circa 2009, it was politically incorrect to speak of climate change adaptation.  Hurricane Sandy and the inability of the U.S Congress to make progress on climate change mitigation and India and China’s ongoing growth have all shifted the discussion to climate change adaptation.  Like a minor league Hari Seldon from the Foundation, I anticipated all of this and this is why I wrote Climatopolis.

Today, Michael Lind reviews Al Gore’s new book and the Vice President has some reasonable things to say about the potential for climate change adaptation.  Here is a quote:

“He shows a willingness to rethink positions and admit errors that is as rare among prophets and pundits as among politicians. In speaking, for example, about the possibility of adapting to global warming even while trying to minimize it, he writes: “For my own part, I used to argue many years ago that resources and effort put into adaptation would divert attention from the all-out push that is necessary to mitigate global warming and quickly build the political will to sharply reduce emissions of global warming pollution. I was wrong — not wrong that deniers would propose adaptation as an alternative to mitigation, but wrong in not immediately grasping the moral imperative of pursuing both policies simultaneously, in spite of the difficulty that poses.””

Note that the Vice President places “policy” front and center here.  For a man who has made tens of millions of dollars from capitalism, why does he narrowly focus on government as the key to adaptation?  Where is the free market as the key innovative source for helping us to adapt to climate change?

In my ongoing research, we argue that there are cases where well meaning government policy can impede climate change adaptation and that government price ceilings on water and electricity prices and land use zoning certainly do impede adaptation. I discuss all of this in Climatopolis.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

15 thoughts on “Al Gore’s Nuanced Support for Climate Change Adaptation Efforts”

  1. The ultimate crisis needs more than a “maybe” for real planet lovers:
    Sorry but I’ll stay a former climate change believer as long as science only says it “could” happen.
    Look for yourself as I did and you will not find one single IPCC warning that actually says it WILL happen, only “might” happen and this planet lover needs “certainty” before condemning my children to their CO2 deaths. You can’t have a little climate crisis!
    So how close to the point of no return from unstoppable warming were these lab coats going to guide us before they said; a crisis is imminent or impending or inevitable or certain or unavoidable or assured or guaranteed or “will happen” not just “might” and “could” happen?
    I don’t mind that climate change was exaggerated. I didn’t WANT this misery to be real.

    1. I don’t want it to be real either, but that does not make a hell of a lot of difference, does it?

      However, I did give up smoking cigarettes many, many years ago rather than waiting for someone in a lab coat to tell me a crisis was imminent.

  2. And how do you, Matthew, see the PAYMENT for this mitigation playing out?
    You expect America (which apparently is substantially unwilling to pay for the fallout of immediate extant damage, eg attempts to mitigate unemployment in the wake of the financial collapse that affects its own poor citizens) to happily pay for helping out Bangladesh? Or is the theory that mitigation (rather than reduction of emissions) is just fine as long as it mitigates the problem for the rich; and if the poor get screwed over, well, tough.

    There is actually a MORAL issue here beyond the mere accounting of which path will leave the plutocracy with the most dollars…

    1. There is actually a MORAL issue here beyond the mere accounting of which path will leave the plutocracy with the most dollars…

      I couldn’t agree more.

      One argument for markets is that they (should) make us pay for the resources we use. How does adaptation make us pay for “using” Bangladesh to keep us from having to reduce carbon emissions?

      Let me add that I’m getting tired of seeing Kahn continue making book-selling posts without ever addressing these issues, which have been raised repeatedly in comments.

  3. A pretty weasely review from the usually excellent Lind, in my opinion. By the way Matthew, your right that we can probably adapt, but what about, say, Bangladesh. There is a moral issue here that you libertarians just don’t get!

  4. Where is the free market as the key innovative source for helping us to adapt to climate change?

    I would have thought that an economy professor would be familiar with the concept of externalities.

    Obviously, it would be naive to assume that government regulation is automatically a force for good (since demonstrably it often isn’t); but it is just as naive to believe that the free market fairy will prevent (or sufficiently mitigate) climate change without at least some gentle prodding.

    This is why most effective environmental policies that I know of either internalize previous environment-related externalities or otherwise re-align incentives with profits.

    A good example is Germany’s packaging ordinance. In 1991, the conservative government (including the economically laissez-faire free democrats) gave the industry two options: Either they figured out a way to deal with the recycling and disposal of packaging materials themselves, or the government would make them do it. Grudgingly, the industry obliged, and two decades later, recycling of packaging materials in Germany is near-total. Now, while this policy did not aim at reducing the carbon footprint (at least not directly), but to reduce the number of landfills in Germany (waste disposal has been a problem for Germany for a long time), it worked by internalizing previously externalized costs (i.e., requiring manufacturers to pay for the recycling or disposal [1] of packaging).

    [1] Contrary to the linked article, the ordinance only mandates recycling where recycling is technically possible and economically viable; disposal costs still have to be covered by the manufacturers where packaging is not recycled. However, recycling is generally more cost-effective than disposal, especially due to the economies of scale that the German recycling industry can now leverage.

  5. I think that prior to 2009 there was a more nuanced approach to adaptation than Matthew describes, based primarily on who paid for it. If polluters pay for adaptation, then that’s good. For example, a blog post I wrote in January 2008:

    More generally I think it was well accepted prior to 2009 that some climate change was baked in and therefore adaptation would be necessary even under best-case scenarios.

  6. Seems to me the commenters are missing Matt’s point, which is that while market failures (such as unpriced external costs) can generate bad outcomes, regulations (such as price caps on water) can also generate bad outcomes. When that’s true, the key policy is getting out of the way.

    In any case, I’m delighted to hear that Al Gore now sees the need for a two-track approach. I’d say three-track, adding geoengineering to emissions controls and adaptation efforts, especially in light of how difficult it will be for developing countries – most of all, but not exclusively, coastal ones – to adapt.

    1. I think we should avoid geoengineering if at all possible. I say that as a liberal with a conservative, or at least Hayekian, perspective on rationality. It’s hubris to think we won’t end up destroying what we’re trying to save.

    2. That’s correct, if a little banal, but I don’t see that anywhere in this piece of self-promotion. I’m curious if Kahn has admitted in anything he’s written here that “market failures can generate bad outcomes”?

  7. This old (OK, getting old) ecologist doesn’t see anything other than a soft or a hard landing changing our situation. After a soft landing, we may have different economics contributing to decision-making, so these nuanced, big-tent proscriptions likely won’t work. After a hard landing, those remaining won’t give two —s about economics except for the rich. So such books won’t do much either, except make good fiber.


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