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Global Climate Change

the pragmatist's guide to moving the needle

Ivo Welch and Bradford Cornell

Editor: Mary Clare McEwing

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Synopsis: Climate change is transforming Earth. By the end of this century, it will likely be approximately 2℃ warmer than it is today — and it could turn out to be a lot worse. Warming will cause great miseries, especially in some specific poor countries. What can we do to help slow down global warming — to move the needle?

So far, much climate activism has been ineffective. Individual carbon-footprint activism has not and cannot greatly change the global climate trajectory. Nor does it matter much what the worldwide social cost of carbon or the optimal level of a carbon tax should be — the subjects of much acrimonious debate — simply because there is no world government. Nor is it realistic to believe that international negotiations will lead to major emission cuts. And even the painful economic sacrifices proposed by United Nation Treaties could slow global warming by only about 0.3-0.5℃ by 2100.

Moreover, expecting such sustained painful sacrifices is unrealistic. Both activists and skeptics alike have trouble coming to grips with reality. The activists who imagine that important decision makers will accept significant local pain on behalf of broader global climate objectives are as unrealistic as the skeptics who claim humanity would not be better off with fewer fossil-fuel emissions. What ultimately matters is not what the world should do, but what its important decision-makers will do.

And just who these decision-makers are might surprise readers. The OECD is no longer important enough to be able to solve the world’s climate problem. Non-OECD countries will soon house more than four-fifths of the world’s population and emit more than three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gases. We shouldn’t blame them, either. Many are poor and will want to offer their people similar modern standards of living that we in the OECD have already been enjoying. Our collective worldwide dilemma will not be solved by guilt feelings and goodwill in OECD countries, by development aid, or by mandated emission reductions and belt-tightening. The blame game is ultimately an irrelevant distraction.

Not all is lost. The most pressing task now is the intelligent phasing out of fossil fuels. We should subsidize research in all aspects of clean energy, particularly storage. When it arrives, cheaper clean energy will displace most fossil fuels all over the world — and thus truly move the needle.

Global Climate Change contains the authors’ best efforts to simplify and shed light (primarily from an economic perspective) on the relevant data. It provides objective quantitative assessments of the issues with a focus on common sense. It tells the unvarnished truth in the most accurate and objective manner possible. It holds no cows sacred. Whether truths are inconvenient or unwelcome is irrelevant. This book may well appeal to and offend readers of all stripes. The authors welcome the debate.


The Transitioning Problem
Appendix
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Crib Sheet — Important Summary of Most Important Facts (html)

Teaching slides are here.

We have only one goal: to get the science as correct and fair as we possibly can. We have no horse in this race. We welcome all corrections. If something is incorrect, please point us (via email) to a specific passage in our book that is incorrect and to the evidence why it is incorrect (or simply misleading). (We have zero interest in peddling climate denial or climate activism. Please do not email philosophical exceptions or emails about how dangerous it is to tell audiences about X, because doing so would harm a cause. We are not writing this book as activists, although we do view ourselves as environmentalists.)

Our book focuses on what it will plausibly take to change the trajectory of world emissions and temperature, not about what one should do to "defend" oneself against these changes. Robert Pindyck from MIT has written an excellent book — CLIMATE FUTURE: AVERTING AND ADAPTING TO CLIMATE CHANGE — that focuses on risk and insurance, irreversibility, and adaptation. This makes it a particularly good complement to our own book.


What countries have caused and will cause global CO2 accumulation?

Research (Re-)Analyses: (1) 400,000 years of temperature and CO2 data. (2) Disaggregating the Increase in Tropical Cyclone Intensity in Kossin et al. (PNAS 2020).

Amusing alternative energy proposal: Harvesting Cat Energy.

Also, free from the same author: Corporate Finance textbook, 5th Edition, 2022.


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