NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 25, 2008

As with all policy decisions, the choice between combating climate change or continuing the current greenhouse gas emissions trend is a choice between different sets of risks, costs and benefits.  Yet, the debate offers little discussion of the benefits of warming or the costs of trying to slow climate change.  Those issues need to be part of the public discussion of greenhouse gas policy, as they will affect efforts to reach a political consensus, says Jason Scott Johnston, director of the Program on Law, Environment and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania.

There is abundant evidence that an increase in climatic temperature of 2-3 degrees Celsius may well benefit many regions of the United States in the form of enhanced amenity value.  Moreover:

  • Global warming can increase agricultural productivity.
  • Heat-related mortality in the United States has declined steadily since the 1960s.
  • It also has the potential of greatly lengthening the season for outdoor sports and recent work estimates show that global warming will generate an increase in profits and consumer welfare from warm weather sports.

Even though economists can estimate the value of a warmer climate, really large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions depend upon the widespread adoption of new technologies.  Yet, the cost of decarbonizing the American economy will be radically unequal to the benefits.  By one estimate, the only current method of carbon capture for coal-burning plants increases the typical customer's utility bills by 44 percent.  Because the poor spend a larger part of their income on energy, such cost increases will disproportionately hurt poorer people.

Furthermore, change science suggests that continuing, uncontrolled increases in greenhouse gas emissions would constitute a global-level experiment with unknown but potentially very serious and harmful long-term consequences.  But if by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, the United States could slow or even reduce the buildup of those gases in the atmosphere, then the nation may well help reduce short- to medium-term suffering in the developing world and also generate a long-term benefit for future Americans, says Johnston.

Source: Jason Scott Johnston, "A Looming Policy Disaster," Regulation, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall 2008.

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