Chapter 14


One of the arguments most frequently advanced by those opposed to action on climate is that we don't know enough to take action now. This raises a more general question: How do we make decisions in the face of uncertainty? This Youtube video by Prof. Dessler briefly lays out the argument made in Chap. 14.

In the uncertainty discussion, we talk about the two kinds of errors you can make — e.g., a jury in a criminal trial can incorrectly convict an innocent person or incorrectly acquit a guilty one. These errors are sometimes referred to as type I and type II errors. See this article for a discussion of error avoidance in scientific assessments, such as the IPCC's reports.

Philosophy of climate change

The climate problem is a philosophical minefield.  For an overview, I definitely recommend Gardner's book, which is listed in the additional reading section.  Climate change brings up so many difficult questions.  For example, is it ethical to have kids given the fact that the kids (and the kids' descendants) will cause additional climate change?  Listen to this podcast for a great discussion of the issue.

The 2°C target

One of the most important parts of any climate policy is the long-term goal. Most policies today focus on 2°C warming, but there is some argument whether this is the right target. e.g., Victor and Kennel, Climate policy: Ditch the 2°C warming goal, Nature 514, 30–31, 2014 doi:10.1038/514030a and Luers and Sklar, The difficult, the dangerous, and the catastrophic: Managing the spectrum of climate risks. Earth's Future, 2, 114–118, 2014, doi: 10.1002/2013EF000192.  

Here's another scientific critique of 2°C — it argues that, whatever target you pick, your near term actions are pretty similar, so we should stop arguing about 1.5°C vs. 2°C vs. 2.5°C.

In any event, some argue that the 2°C-limit looks increasingly impossible to achieve. This may be bad news since the impacts at 3°C or 4°C look increasingly grim, at least according to this World Bank analysis.  Here is another easy-to-read analysis of the problem.

The British Government has a pretty cool climate calculator that you can use to figure out how hard it is to keep warming below 2°C.  See also the C-LEARN web-based program for calculating the climate impacts of various policies.  

Free riding

One of the challenges in climate policy is discouraging "free riding." Free riders are countries that don't participate in emissions reductions, but nevertheless enjoy the benefits of other countries' emissions reductions.  Here is a great article by William Nordhaus that talks about this problem, as well as many other aspects of climate policy.

The costs of climate change

The Stern review of the economics of climate change discusses the costs and benefits of addressing climate change, as well as the cost of doing nothing about it. The report concludes that we should be taking immediate action to address climate change.

For an alternative view, see William Nordhaus' book Climate Casino. This book also concludes that we should be taking action to address climate change, but less strenuous action than Stern. 

What are the economic risks of climate change to the U.S.? Glad you asked! You can read about it in this 2014 report, Risky Business: The economic risks of climate change in the United States. This is a report by three succesful businessmen that span the political spectrum, and it argues that climate change is already costing the U.S. a ton of money. 

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office has released a detailed analyses of impact of a carbon tax on emissions and the economy. Check it out here

The Obama Administration also has its own estimate of the costs of climate change, which can be found here.

This analysis folds in the health benefits of switching to renewable energy, which are considerable.  

And here are two more estimates.  Both of them present very optimistic views of the cost of climate mitigation.

Why do something about climate change?

This is an interesting article by a great writer (Michael Pollan) about the intersection of climate and food production.

The debate over climate policy has not just a scientific component, but also a philosophical one. See this excellent lecture where Prof. Claire Palmer explains this aspect of the problem.

The importance of short-lived climate forcers

As described in the chapter, climate forcers with relatively short lifetimes (e.g., methane) can play a key role in climate policies by allowing a rapid reduction in radiative forcing. For a (somewhat technical) discussion of the role of these short-lived forcers, see R.T. Pierrehumbert, Short-lived climate pollution, Ann. Rev. of Earth and Planetary Sci., 42, 341-379, doi:10.1146/annurev-earth-060313-054843.