Radicals are right to point out capitalism’s need for growth at all costs is the road to ruin, but does runaway climate change wreck the prospect of a communist society too?
A tale of two charts
Two charts have been doing the rounds. The first (pictured above) is from a newly published paper in Nature Climate Change. The authors show that the current emissions pathway is actually tracking above the highest of the IPCC’s four ‘Representative Concentration Pathways’, RCP 8.5. In layman’s terms, we’re doing worse than the worst case scenario: on course for 5 degrees or more warming by 2100, with ‘runaway’ climate change almost certainly following. For the authors, the likelihood of changing direction is sufficiently low, that:
…to continue to focus on a 2 °C (or more aggressive) temperature target as the singular inviolate metric of long-term success is to engage in a form of climate denial.
The other image was tweeted by economics professor Richard Tol, from a paper of his published last year:
A century of climate change is not as bad as a lost decade of economic growth http://t.co/MCSpOhlW76 pic.twitter.com/Od6mqVHCOZ
— Richard Tol (@RichardTol) February 26, 2014
Tol’s argument here is fairly consistent with mainstream economic thinking. The 2006 Stern review for example, says that “it is difficult to secure emissions cuts faster than about 1 percent a year except in instances of recession.” Indeed, a 1997 piece in Foreign Affairs, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, even argued that because agriculture only accounts for a small percentage of GDP, it was rational, for developed countries at least, to allow a massive collapse in productivity as long as growth in other sectors more than compensated. It’s telling that this was written during the dotcom bubble, but the attitude of ‘let them eat growth’ is remarkably persistent.
Tol considers “a cost-effective emission reduction trajectory towards stabilization at 625 ppm CO2e”. This isn’t really how the climate system works. It can’t be stabilised at arbitrary concentrations that suit cost-benefit analysis, as once positive feedbacks kick-in, the climate will keep on changing over the course of centuries and millennia. This is also a problem with the Stern Review’s 550ppm CO2e target, and according to recent research, even the official 450ppm CO2e ‘2 degree’ one. James Hansen’s advocacy of reducing atmospheric concentrations to 350ppm CO2e seems the most prudent in light of the scientific evidence and uncertainty over tipping points. This is not compatible with economic growth, at least for several decades until the transition is complete.
But in any case, Tol’s paper concludes that “it is unlikely that a beneﬁt–cost analysis would justify stabilization of the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (…) as that would require zero carbon dioxide emissions.” Those valuable fossil fuels do have to be burned, after all. He does concede that “catastrophic risk is a more powerful argument for more stringent climate policy, but to a limited extent as emission reduction has downside risks too” (emphasis added). Catastrophe is bad, but is it really as bad as forgoing GDP growth? No wonder we’re in the shit.