Other experts needed to cool things down

Now that an international group of climate scientists predicts confidently that global warming will occur, Scientific American’s David Biello concludes that “the science of climate change may partially undergo a shift of its own, moving from trying to prove it is a problem … to figuring out ways to fix it.”

But there is at least one other step that should be taken too, and that is to try to achieve some economic consensus on the best measures to take. There remains serious debate among economists looking at the costs and benefits of various global warming mitigation strategies. (See, for example, this review by one economist of another’s work.) We should be just as wary about the danger of junk economics as we should be about the danger of junk climate science. Economists should take the assumptions of climate scientists as a given, and give bottom line assessments of the costs and benefits of different strategies. My instinct is that major policy changes would be recommended, but if it turns out that the costs of mitigation are greater than the benefits, we should accept that too.

Ideally, we should convene other expert groups as well — such as experts on agriculture, oceans, and on and on –so that their numbers too can be plugged into economists’ calculations. Some important questions, unfortunately, don’t necessarily suggest expert groups uniquely qualified to answer them. For example, we should probably predict the political dislocations from agitation due to global warming, but it’s hard to know whose models are best suited to making such a forecast.

Other individual questions probably need many different types of experts. We should seriously consider geoengineering strategies such as pumping sulfates into the stratosphere, even though such consideration might well result in a conclusion that these strategies would not be worth undertaking. Each of these postulated strategies probably demands various groups of expert assessors, including climatologists, economists, materials scientists, and even they may have an almost hopeless task given the difficulty of predicting the feasibility of technological solutions many years from now.

Of course, even if we can figure out the best strategy incorporating all relevant perspectives, we then need to figure out which second-best strategies are worth taking given political constraints, such as countries that won’t cooperate with an effort to reduce carbon emissions. In the end, we can throw all the experts in the world at this problem, and we should, but the ultimate decisions will be made by our very imperfect political systems, so rational responses are probably too much to hope for.

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3 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Michael,

    Shouldn’t we speak of global warming in the present tense?

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I suspect dealing with the myriad effects of global warming will give new and urgent meaning to notions of inter- or trans-disciplinary expertise and knowledge coordination.

    Yet I worry that, in the end, problems of expertise will pale alongside questions of political will and leadership (at least here in the states).

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    BTW: The latest issue of the Boston Review (Vol. 32, No. 1) is out and it has a handful of articles about global warming. And most if not all of them are available online (still, if you like the material therein, it’s worth supporting the magazine with a subscription): http://bostonreview.net/

    [I haven’t read them yet as I got caught up reading Lawrence Rosen on Robert Irwin on Edward Said on Orientalism.]